Early Years Recruitment:
How These Groups Are Tackling The Crisis

Two group leaders explain how we can all help to bolster the early years workforce.
  • The early years recruitment crisis is continuing to have an impact on groups and single setting providers of every size.
  • We talked to leaders from two nursery groups, Kindred Nurseries (formerly Eduko) and Acorn Early Years Foundation, to find out how they’re tackling the issue.
  • We’ll go over the latest facts and figures, before finding out what these groups are doing to attract candidates to their settings and the workforce in general.

The level of calamity we’re facing with the early years recruitment crisis depends on who you ask – or what you read.

Recent data published by Ceeda’s About EY team suggest there’s some recovery of Level 3’s awarded, with the U-turn on GCSE requirements topping the list of explanations.

And yet, the numbers are still well below 2012 figures. What’s more, that very same report finds hiring difficulties across the sector, and a recent NDNA survey shows employees leaving the sector in their droves.

With more firepower than independent settings, the groups may be best placed to deal with this pressure, but that comes with a greater responsibility to try and boost total workforce numbers too. So how do groups balance attracting more candidates to their settings, while helping to attract more people to the sector to begin with?

Time to bring in the experts.

Ruth Pimentel, CEO at Kindred Nurseries

Having previously led Toad Hall Nursery Group and been interim Nursery Director at Spring by Action for Children, Ruth Pimentel has recently been appointed CEO at 14-setting Kindred Nurseries (formerly Eduko). She was named in the Top 10 Most Influential by NMT for 2019 and has had a hand in everything from the development of the EYFS, to leading the National Strategies from 2006-2009.

Kieran Glackin, HR Manager at Acorn Early Years Foundation

Kieran Glackin is the HR Manager at 13-setting Acorn Early Years Foundation, joining in 2016 after many years working in construction recruitment. A quick learner, he’s now become a passionate advocate of the Acorn approach to childcare. As a charity, Acorn has a strong focus on organic growth and expanding into communities that need accessible, affordable childcare.

Later on, you’ll hear from both Kieran and Ruth about how they approach early years recruitment challenges every day. But first, let’s take a moment to assess the situation we’re in, and how we got here…

What’s the state of early years recruitment?

While the climbing number of Level 3 graduates might be one positive piece of news, it’s certainly not all happy reading. The aforementioned Ceeda report and the recent NDNA Workforce Survey still paint some worrying pictures:

  • 77% of providers say they’re finding it tough to recruit.
  • The majority of staff are leaving the sector while fully qualified at Level 3, mostly to head to better paying jobs in retail.
  • Employers point to a shortage of qualified staff as the main barrier to recruitment.
  • Employers are reporting that it’s harder to recruit staff at every level of qualification.
  • NDNA’s survey shows a downward year-on-year trend of Level 3 qualified staff, with 52% holding the qualification for 18/19. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that Ceeda found 76% of staff to hold Level 3 or above in 2018, which is a slight improvement on the previous year.
Why are people talking of an early years recruitment crisis?

These figures are all well and good, but you can’t find a solution without understanding what’s causing them.

It’s widely accepted that any resurgence we are seeing in numbers entering the sector is at least partly down to the reversal of the GCSE requirements, but the reasons behind the wider early years recruitment difficulties are more multi-faceted.

“There’s no doubt that the competition for salaries around that National Living Wage amount has increased, in particular because of pressure coming from supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl paying a little more,” explains Ruth. “It means people who aren’t perhaps as wedded to childcare went off and found themselves other jobs.”

At the same time, increased consolidation of nursery groups at the top has led to them being able to offer better packages, and more aggressive incentives to move. Online recruitment is playing it’s part too, making it easier for people to see what’s available and move around.

But there’s no doubt that one of the biggest factors impacting movement both within and out of early years is the same problem making life difficult for every part of the sector – 30 Hours and the chronic underfunding of places.

The £662 million funding hole is leaving the sector in a weak position to compete in what is a tight market. With little wiggle room to spend on salaries, the average pay of £8.49 per hour is well below the £9.41 found in comparable roles. The difference is even starker for those in managerial positions.

What impact is it causing?

The most obvious impact of the early years recruitment crisis is increased hiring difficulty. But as Ceeda reported, this has many knock-on effects, including:

  • Stretched ratios leading to more stressful work environments and a reduction in quality of care.
  • Hiring difficulties pushing the cost of hiring up and increasing reliance on costly agency staff.
  • Stretched rotas not leaving much time for providers to give families the extra support they need and keeping more children on waiting lists.

The core pillars of a strong, sustainable early years sector are being threatened. Operating costs, quality of care, setting availability and support, and the well-being and income of staff are all in danger of going south.

Time to do something about it.

What can you do to help the sector and your own recruitment?

Nursery groups wield the power to make a difference to more than just their own prosperity.

Throughout our conversations with Kieran and Ruth, it was clear they believe that they have a role to play in attracting more staff to the workforce to begin with, as well as reaching and attracting quality staff already working in childcare.

That’s why over the course of this article, you’ll find ideas for the big picture and the small. You’ll find some top tips to help reach and attract the best staff to your settings, but you’ll also hear ideas about how to make a wider impact too.

1. Commit to upskilling the workforce

When you’re faced with a challenging early years recruitment environment it can be tempting to think that an investment in training can be a wasted resource if those staff are likely to move on within, or even out of the sector. But that’s not the way Kieran sees it.

“Every unqualified full-timer that we employee is strongly encouraged to go through Level 3 training with us,” he says, “and we fund the whole thing. Our target is to get 75% of staff at level 3, and I don’t see a reason why we can’t.”

And this kind of initiative is more than just an attractive pledge for potential recruits. “Professionalising the childcare workforce is of great importance, not only for Acorn but for the wider sector,” Kieran says. “Sharing talent, knowledge and expertise will hopefully bring greater acceptance that childcare is not just ‘looking after children’.”

This attitude extends beyond Level 3 and into the four full training days a year that Acorn use to give targeted, specialised training to their staff. This helps retention and attracting candidates who want to see a clear career progression ahead of them.

As the old story goes, the only thing worse than spending money training someone only for them to leave is if you don’t, and they stay.

“If someone does leave after being qualified, I’m confident that we’re going to get them back one day. And if we can’t, well I just need to be doing my job better to make sure that we’re a workplace where people want to come and work. In the worse case scenario, for relatively little impact to us, we’re having a big impact on the quality of the wider workforce.”

Kieran Glackin, HR Manager, Acorn Early Years Foundation

2. Walk the walk and make your staff ambassadors

“Staff want to be proud of where they work,” points out Ruth. “They want to feel that they’re valued, and have that sense of belonging to something which is inherently good.”

You just can’t get away with talking the talk if you’re not walking the walk these days. Whether it’s social media or age-old conversations in the street, if you’re not treating your employees well – it’ll spread.

For that same reason, your staff are also your most powerful ambassadors. At Kindred, Ruth’s team have organised a Careers Facebook page to attract new staff, and they do so by sharing stories from their existing workforce. Staff share positive reviews and the team talk about successes. It works as a way to make your existing workforce proud of where they work at the same time.

Every Summer, Kindred hold their ACE awards, where staff are nominated by parents and their colleagues. These events help you to keep your current staff engaged, but they also have a big impact on how you can reach and attract more candidates. This year, Ruth’s team got more than 400 nominations.

“It shouldn’t take a lot to prove to people that you aren’t just speaking about it, but delivering it too,” explains Kieran. “The nursery world can be a small one and everyone has people they trained with or worked with before – that’s why word of mouth matters so much.”

3. Sell what makes you unique

One way to stand out in a busy market is to really own your pedagogy and purpose. Understand the gap that you fill, and make sure you tell people about it.

“Smaller groups need to be aware of what other groups are doing and seeing what they can offer in return,” advises Ruth.

Kindred have recently rebranded, which involved talking to their hundreds of staff and parents, to come up with a new name, values, and their new tagline Awe and Wonder

“It’s all the things you remember from your own childhood, those experiences that stay with you for a long time,” says Ruth. “If you involve your staff in the process of defining your message, then it’s easier to get them onboard. And happy staff mean happy children and happy parents.”

For Kieran at Acorn, their charity status is a big part of that same ethos. “We really believe in the charitable social impact we have, and that defines our ethos of continually doing the best for both the children, the employees, and the communities in the areas we serve. 100%, our community-focused ethos has a big part to play in attracting our staff.”

4. Look beyond college leavers

Putting your eggs in one basket can be a dangerous game. If the more traditional channels such as college leavers fail to come through, you need to have enough other recruitment channels to make sure you’re not left out in the cold.

Just some ideas from our conversations include:

  • T-Levels – What could this new qualification mean for the workforce? Stay up to date and ready to take advantage.
  • Apprentices – Ruth tells us that the apprentices that train with them can end up being some of their most loyal employees, and know the ways of their nurseries inside and out because it was their first home.
  • Parents – A traditional channel into childcare was always parenthood. Why not consider how you engage and upskill new parents into your workforce too?

One of the big challenges Kieran faces is getting more men into the industry. “I want a better gender balance across the organisation,” he says. “We tend to have more men in our catering and forest school roles than in our nurseries. That’s why I’m working on initiatives to do early intervention in school to try and get boys interested as well as young girls.”

Whatever age group you’re targeting, it’s important to get your messaging right for different target audiences. Ceeda are currently in funding for research into this area, but their workforce roundtable already talked about challenging the ‘hair or care’ stereotype that can be prominent for school leavers.

“At that early intervention stage in schools I think it’s important to put the academic spin on it. Explain pedagogy and the power of nurturing children. In the early years you’re not just preparing them for school – you’re preparing them for everything.”

“Be pro-active in building relationships with schools and training providers – add value to their curriculum, help keep their course materials relevant and rich. Mutually beneficial partnerships require effort but can have lasting impact.”

The Sector Skills Survey by Ceeda About EY

5. Try out Facebook Groups

There’s no doubt that online recruitment is having an impact on how people move around. “It is easier to see what jobs are available now,” says Ruth, “and it’s easier to put yourself forward because it is all there.”

One thing Kieran has noticed, however, is that these online sites like Total Jobs and Indeed often bring in the wrong demographic. For that, he has something else up his sleeve.

“The biggest results are when the staff help us out by sharing jobs on local Facebook community pages,” he says. “So we have a big presence in Milton Keynes, and these groups go down to being hyper-localised, even to the level of local estates. That’s becoming a huge channel for us because different people are able to find out about careers in the early years for the first time and local people who are already working in the sector are more likely to stumble across it.”

6. Process. Process. Process.

But Kieran isn’t the only one with a trick up his sleeve. For Ruth, it’s about a programme they use called Workable.

“It’s a great piece of software,” she says, “you can post a vacancy, it sends it off to all the recruiting channels, it tracks who comes through, and everyone is able to see an overview of what’s going on.”

These kind of processes are even more important in a competitive market, says Ruth. With 77% of employers having open vacancies, it means once you’ve got someone interested, you can’t afford for them to slip through the net.

“You have to get your process right, so every expression of interest is followed up, you’ve checked every CV, and you send interview reminders,” says Ruth. “In a climate where there’s a lot of pressure on jobs, the people who are going to get the candidates are those who keep on top of things.”

7. Join the fight

If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that the sector needs change. And no-one can do it alone.

“Years ago, there was The Children’s Workforce Council, that looked after the interests of the early years workforce,” explains Ruth, “but that has long fallen by the wayside, and more recently the penny is beginning to drop that no-one is going to fix this situation centrally. It’s up to us to sort it out together.”

That’s why initiatives like Ceeda’s Workforce Roundtable are so vital, as is the NDNA survey data we’ve been discussing throughout. Because while we all have a part to play locally, there are also bigger issues that need to be resolved for the workforce to properly recover.

On this, both the NDNA and Ceeda are agreed. They both share three similar recommendations, summarised as:

  • Increased levels of public investment in early years provision and a solution to the underfunding of settings.
  • A full training and early years workforce strategy that is truly employer-led and supports upskilling existing staff and training new ones.
  • Universal change in how society values early years education, promoting the vital work of practitioners and encouraging people of all ages to enter the workforce.

On a national level, groups need to come together to fight for these priorities. But as we’ve seen, there’s a role to play on a local level too. Whether it’s helping to sell the benefits of working in the early years, finding new ways to attract new people to the workforce or investing in training your staff, you can all make a difference.

“If everyone does their little bit,” Ruth finishes, “then collectively we might just be able to make a big difference.”

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