Childcare workers upgrading their qualifications would have tuition fees covered under an apprenticeship scheme to ease the chronic skills shortage in the sector, in a recommendation by a leading industry group, Care For Kids.
Providers are still struggling to meet standards introduced in January which require half of all staff to have, or be working towards, a diploma in early childhood education and remaining staff to hold a certificate III qualification.
Services with more than 25 children are required to employ a university-qualified early childhood teacher under the National Quality Framework, which aims to lift young children's learning.
But the cost of further study is a deterrent to staff earning as little as $19 an hour.
Roxanne Elliott, co-founder of Care For Kids, a childcare resource website, is calling for an early years apprenticeship scheme to subsidise courses. A certificate III can cost up to $4000, a diploma up to $13,000 and a tertiary degree up to $24,000.
''We think an apprenticeship scheme could work well because it provides an incentive to attract quality staff to the sector,'' she said.
Such an apprenticeship scheme, worth up to $3700, has been introduced in Britain where the childcare sector is also introducing more rigorous qualifications.
More than one-third of Australian services are not meeting the new standards under the National Quality Framework and almost 5 per cent have applied for waivers as they are unable to meet requirements, based on the latest data from the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority.
In its submission to the Productivity Commission's inquiry into Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, Care For Kids recommends the apprenticeship scheme as well as making on-the-job experience equivalent to formal qualifications in appropriate cases.
Ms Elliott said many older, experienced childcare workers were leaving the sector as they did not want to retrain or could not afford to.
''People who have been in the sector for a long time have been reticent to get qualifications and that has resulted in that natural attrition,'' she said.
Sam Page, chief executive of peak body Early Childhood Australia, supports the idea of subsidising tuition fees, particularly for staff willing to work in rural or remote areas where the skills shortage is worst.
''It's a scheme that has worked well for the health sector,'' she said. ''They have done this quite consistently. We think it would work well for the early childhood sector.''
Early Childhood Australia has called for some of the $300 million government fund previously ear-marked for staff pay increases to go towards subsidising further training.
''It's a good way of addressing skills shortages in key areas,'' she said. ''We don't have quite the number of four-year trained teachers or diploma-qualified educators we need.''
Jemma Carlisle, general manager of four childcare centres at the University of NSW, said apprenticeships would not solve the problem of high staff turnover due to poor remuneration.
''Apprenticeships will attract new people to the sector but how long will they stay?'' she said.
''The No. 1 issue in the sector is the low wages. That money would be better spent on industry-wide wage rises to ensure better staff retention for the long term. Apprenticeships are a short-term solution.''
Louise Tarrant, national secretary of United Voice, which represents childcare workers, said even qualified staff were poorly paid. Certificate III holders earned $19.07 an hour and diploma-qualified staff got $22.46 an hour.
''Under the current wages structure, educators are offered little financial incentive to obtain or improve their qualification,'' she said.
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