Recruitment – Crunch time

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Raising pay levels in the sector is ultimately the only way to address the recruitment crisis finds Charlotte Goddard

Five years ago the Government drew up the Early Years Workforce Strategy in an attempt to reverse the recruitment crisis facing the sector. Since then however, the situation has worsened. Across the board, nurseries say recruitment is the biggest issue they face, with many having to limit intake, close rooms or even close entire settings because they can’t staff them.

Storal Learning, for example, was recently forced to close Honeytree Nursery and Pre-school in Weston-super-Mare, citing disruption caused by poor recruitment. Another group of four nurseries has had to close three settings due to inability to find staff, says Stella Ziolkowski, director of quality and workforce development at the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA).

An Early Years Alliance (EYA) survey of early educators published in December 2021 found 84 per cent were finding it difficult to recruit suitable new early years staff, with 60 per cent finding it ‘very difficult’. Almost half of settings (49 per cent) said they had had to place limits on the numbers of new children they could accept, or stop taking in new children at all, due to lack of staff. A 2020 report from the Social Mobility Commission estimated turnover rates for the early years workforce to be between 11 and 15 per cent.

A historical problem

The pandemic has not helped, with high numbers of staff self-isolating – the latest figures show that on January 26, 12 per cent of paid staff in early years settings were absent from work due to Covid-19. Furlough has also had an impact, with many practitioners taking on second jobs while on furlough, says Ms Ziolkowski. ‘Some have decided they want to move to the new job, because it is easier and more flexible than working in early years.’

Morale in the sector has plummeted as early years staff have felt neglected and taken for granted by the Government. ‘We are sometimes mentioned in passing after schools and hospitals, but always at the bottom of the heap,’ says Mary Llewellin, business development manager at Snapdragons Nurseries, which has ten settings in the West of England.

The EYA found that 80 per cent of respondents to a survey in January 2021 had felt stressed about work because of an issue relating to the Covid-19 pandemic ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ often over the previous month.

However, recruitment was already a massive issue even before Covid-19. Some settings say the requirement for Level 3-qualifed practitioners to hold English and maths GCSEs, which was introduced in 2014, and removed in 2017 after a government U-turn, created a gap which is still being felt. Careers advisers continue to promote early years as a career for the less academically able, resulting in fewer qualified staff, says Ms Ziolkowski. In addition, the push for apprenticeships has resulted in a dearth of qualified staff and childcare settings becoming increasingly reliant on new staff who can take 18 months to two years to train, says Ms Llewellin.

Tackling the issue of low pay

The core issue, however, is pay. The Social Mobility Commission found that the average hourly wage across the early years workforce in England, which is 96 per cent female, is just £7.42 per hour, compared to an average pay across the female workforce of £11.37. As long as salaries continue to compare unfavourably with jobs which require fewer qualifications and cause less stress, nurseries will continue to struggle to recruit staff. ‘We’ve been moving towards a more qualified workforce without pay moving anywhere,’ says Ms Ziolkowski.

However, raising wages remains impossible for many settings as government funding rates, which many nurseries say do not cover the cost of delivering places anyway, have not increased at the same rate as the National Minimum Wage. Staff don’t want to spend time doing qualifications when it makes no difference to their pay, says Ms Ziolkowski.

The Department for Education has set up an early years recruitment and retention policy team to tackle the problem, which has been meeting with settings including Snapdragons. The department said it could not comment on the work of a specific policy team but a spokesperson said: ‘Supporting the early years workforce continues to be a priority for the department, and we are in regular contact with local authorities and sector bodies to understand the pressures on providers, including any issues related to recruitment and retention.’

There are a number of issues the Government needs to tackle says Ms Llewellin. ‘Given that many colleges have withdrawn early years courses due to lack of applicants, how can the Government support the industry to promote careers in early years?’ she asks. ‘What will the Government do to support children and parents if and when early years providers can no longer accept children due to staffing shortages?’

She also wants the Government to guarantee that the solution to staffing shortages will not be an increase in ratios, something which does not safeguard children and would result in an exodus of qualified staff from the industry.

Call for Government action

The Early Years Alliance is making a number of recommendations to the Government including that it should take urgent steps to increase early years salary levels by publishing a suitable salary range for each role level in the sector, and by providing early years funding rates that enable providers to pay salaries at those levels.

Despite the challenges settings are doing everything they can to attract and retain qualified staff.

Snapdragons has created a management structure which allows staff to progress their careers within the group, with unit co-ordinators, for example, who might head up all the baby rooms or all the toddler rooms in a large setting. The group is also planning a Saturday virtual interview day for a setting which is having particular difficulties in recruiting, with applicants able to obtain speculative interviews without having to fill in an application form first – staff will help them fill it in during the meeting.

Ruth Pimentel, chief executive of Kindred Education, a group of 20 nurseries, says recruitment requires constant vigilance. ‘You’ve got to have people on it all the time, trying to make sure they’re in contact with candidates, moving them quickly through the process, and screening them very quickly, because we see these candidates disappearing before you’ve even really noticed them,’ she says.

Kindred is collecting video case studies from team members talking about their inspirations and what they love about the job in order to promote early years as a career – something which also needs to happen at a national level says Ms Pimentel.

‘Raising the profile of the sector, raising the really important point about how wonderful it is to work with young children, and what great environments nurseries are, really needs a concerted effort and focus,’ she says.

Some settings are finding success with social media, which allows them to target specific demographics.

All About Children for example has a strong presence on Twitter, which it uses to promote benefits such as a £1,000 recruitment bonus, and has also created videos on TikTok such as ‘a day in the life of an apprentice’. Close relationships with local schools and colleges can also prove beneficial, attending open days and careers classes.

However, money remains the core issue. ‘If you want a qualified workforce, there has to be enough money in the system to be able to pay them,’ says Ms Ziolkowski. ‘Settings are doing everything they can to retain the staff but they can only do so much.’

Portland Nurseries – staff incentives

Portland Nurseries, which has four settings across Huddersfield, has found that introducing free childcare for staff has been a boost for recruitment and retention. ‘We already offered discounted childcare to staff but we had staff leave because other settings were offering free childcare,’ says Michael Murphy, joint managing director. Take-up of the scheme has been excellent, he says. ‘There are a limited number of places we can offer and they have almost all been taken up,’ he explains. ‘We have had amazing feedback, with a manager almost in tears because the offer was so life-changing for her. We have also recruited a new manager and the fact that we were able to offer free childcare was part of the attraction.’

The free childcare offer was part of a number of staff benefits introduced as part of Portland’s 30th birthday celebrations. Every member of staff now has an extra ‘wellbeing day’ holiday every year and is encouraged to spend it doing some kind of activity that is supportive of their own wellbeing. Employees can also benefit from wellbeing plans with a therapist, wellbeing boxes, flexible working hours, and a staff loyalty scheme which rewards staff with gifts and additional holidays for service over five years.

The average tenure of an employee at Portland Nurseries is over five years – with eight staff at ten years, three at 15 years, two at 20 years and two at more than 25 years. ‘We try to promote from within, people look at us as offering a clear pathway to management,’ says Murphy. ‘We like to think our standards and the quality of the professional development we offer is what draws them in and keeps them.’

Like all settings Portland has been struggling to recruit qualified staff. ‘It is a recruitment crisis,’ says Murphy. In response there is a greater emphasis on training existing staff, through mentoring, internal training and management development courses, and professional development. The group has also extended its probation period from three to six months as new staff may need more extensive mentoring than in the past.

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