Staff retention strategies for early learning

Published on Tuesday, 01 June 2021
Last updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2021

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A recent survey of early childhood educators has revealed staff shortages are a significant and ongoing challenge for the sector, which may be impacting the quality of education and care being offered children.

The survey, conducted by NZEI Te Riu Roa union's 'ECE Voice' campaign, showed that 92 per cent of teachers believe there is a current teacher shortage in the sector, and more than 80 per cent of them feel personally impacted by shortages.

Educators also said they feel unable to give the children in their centres the time and attention they deserve, with more than 86 per cent believing teacher shortages were having impacts on children.

Over 70 per cent of people we surveyed said their centre had struggled to fill vacancies in the last year. In addition, survey respondents said they had experienced burnout from working in "unstable and stressful" environments.

Analysis of the workforce by NZEI Te Riu Roa earlier this year also found significantly higher rates of vacancies and 'churn' amongst ECE teachers than in schools, and fewer ECE candidates entering initial teacher education.

Recent research drawing on the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) database found that of those who entered the ECE profession in 2010, only 22 per cent were still working in the sector eight years later and the number of ECE teachers entering in initial teacher education declined by 51.8 per cent over the 2009-2019 period, at the same time as ECE provision rapidly expanded with a 46 per cent increase in licensed places.

Te Rito Maioha Chief Executive Kathy Wolfe says NZEI Te Riu Roa ‘s survey of early childhood educators highlights the very real challenges the early childhood education sector is facing in maintaining high quality education for our youngest tamariki.

The survey showed that 96 per cent of early childhood educators expect to see further negative impacts if teacher shortages continue.

However, almost 90 per cent say pay parity with their peers in kindergartens and schools would help to solve some of the issues in the sector in attracting and retaining good teachers.

“All early learning teachers deserve to be paid the same as kindergarten and primary teachers. The serious underfunding of the sector has gone on long enough. The time for addressing it is now,” says Kathy Wolfe.

If staff retention is an issue in your service, but increasing pay isn’t an option, it may be worth considering other factors. They key to attracting and retaining good staff is to introduce a range of strategies designed to foster a sense of self-worth and success in employees. In the high turnover environment of early learning it is worth doing all you can to hold on to staff to avoid the high costs of recruitment and to build good team morale.

The following strategies will help you create a positive culture in your workplace and more importantly, encourage your number one asset; your people, to stick around:

Conduct an induction

A candidate who impresses you during a recruitment round is also likely to have impressed another employer. If your organisation is lucky enough to secure their services then make sure you create a great first impression by conducting a thorough and well considered induction.

Take the time to introduce new staff members to their colleagues, show them the premises and where they can leave their belongings. If necessary ensure any IT infrastructure is in place and make sure you have all the paperwork ready to ensure they receive their pay on time.

Take some time on the first day to sit down with your new recruit to discuss the strategic goals of your service and how they fit into the organisational structure.

Many new recruits leave within the first days or weeks of taking up a new position and creating a positive first impression will help you reduce the chance of this happening.

Performance management

Performance management is simply the practice of introducing a range of goals and objectives for your team and monitoring and measuring their performance against those goals on a regular basis.

Developing and introducing a performance management system for employees can decrease poor performance and give employees a reason to maintain or even improve their good performance.

Ensuring staff and managers have regular meetings can also help you attract high quality staff and ensure you keep hold of them by stimulating feedback and positive communication.

A performance management plan sets out the performance targets or key performance indicators for employees and explains how performance will be measured against those targets.

To be effective a performance management plan should:

  • Be aligned with the strategic and business goals of the organisation
  • Describe the agreed performance management process
  • Describe the agreed performance targets
  • Enable you to objectively measure an employee's performance against those targets
  • Provide real benefits for both the employee and the employer
  • Allow for regular meetings and a two-way flow of communication

A carefully designed and consistently applied performance management plan will help you hold on to staff members by ensuring they clearly understand what is expected of them. It will also give you, the manager, a document you can use to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of an employee's performance and a tool for discussing the potential for pay increases and/or promotion.

Performance management systems may also promote feelings of job satisfaction and loyalty towards an employer and may boost productivity by creating an environment where employees feel as though their work is recognised and valued.

For under performers it can be a helpful way of identifying areas of weakness early and implementing a plan to address those areas before the problem gets too big to do anything about. Providing employees with an opportunity to explain themselves and involving them in an action plan to address the problem areas can also be a very productive exercise.

Career planning

Developing and introducing career planning strategies in your service is a great way of holding onto staff as it sends a strong message that you support their professional development and promotion within the organisation.

Taking the time to devise a realistic and achievable career plan for your staff members will give them a clear goal to work toward, will encourage them to stay, especially if there is a possibility of additional training and will significantly boost job satisfaction.

Conducting a career planning session with team members will ensure your staff members understand:

  • What they need to achieve in terms of training, further education and on the job experience to be promoted within the organisation.
  • What type of work they are best suited towards and what their current and future career interests are.
  • The quickest and most effective way of reaching their career objectives.

Many employees make career decisions quickly without thinking too much about the future and encouraging discussion about the opportunities will improve focus, determination and drive.

It will also ensure you hold onto key staff members by helping keep them professionally satisfied and stimulated and working towards mutual goals which ultimately will assist the organisation as much as the individual employee.

It might be helpful to conduct career planning sessions at the same time as performance management meetings so employees gain a clear picture of how their current performance affects their future opportunities.

Flexible work practices

Flexible workplaces allow employers and employees to work out terms and conditions of employment which serve both the operating needs of the business and the personal commitments of the employee.

Because the nature of early childhood education and care work is very much location based, flexible work practices in this sector usually revolve around the hours of work including possibilities for part time work, job share and varying start and finish times.

The many benefits of introducing flexible work practices include:

  • It will give your organisation a competitive edge during the recruitment process for candidates seeking a better work/life balance.
  • It will improve communication and trust in the workplace by allowing employees to meet their other commitments. This should also reduce sick days and absenteeism.
  • It can foster a sense of loyalty and will encourage teams to work together to work out rosters which suit everyone's time constraints.
  • It can help managers plan and staff for peaks and troughs in workload.
  • It is an extremely cost effective way of boosting team morale and productivity.
  • Encourages managers to look for creative ways to work.

Introducing flexible work practices in an organisation requires managers to spend time with staff discussing alternative working arrangements. The process will be easier if managers are willing to 'think outside the box' to develop and introduce strategies which keep most people if not everyone happy.

A small amount of time spent brainstorming with staff to identify shared goals and objectives will pay enormous dividends for managers leading happy, productive and focused teams.

Introducing some of the simple, cost effective methods described above should help you keep hold of your people in the competitive early learning sector.

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