- Childcare centers are having a hard time staffing up as workers leave for other industries with higher pay and better benefits.
- Insider spoke to five current and former workers about what it’s like to work in early childhood education.
- One former childcare worker said even though he enjoyed his job, he felt “mentally exhausted.”
A single mom in Missouri has worked as a childcare worker for nearly six years. She loves her job and the toddlers she works with. However, she’s at a breaking point and is applying for new jobs.
Like many Americans, she’s stressed, exhausted, burned out and underpaid. The lead toddler teacher, whose name and employment is known to Insider, said her job has become less rewarding during the pandemic, and she’s hoping to find a better way to provide for her two children.
The job search hasn’t been easy. She used to look forward to going to work every day, and she loved guiding them through developmental milestones. She’s grieving that loss.
“I love the connections that I used to be able to make with the families and with the kids,” she said. But, even so, “I just have to look out for my own well-being.”
She’s applied to apprenticeships in welding, carpentry, urban forestry, and manufacturing. With a few interviews under her belt, she’s hoping to get the training she needs to transition to a different – and better paying – sector.
Insider spoke with five current and former childcare workers, most of whom requested at least partial anonymity because they are still in the process of leaving their jobs. All of them said that while the work is rewarding, the low pay and high turnover make it stressful. With the pandemic creating even more tension and health risk, experienced workers like the Missouri teacher are thinking about leaving behind a job they just can’t afford to love anymore.
‘The job that I absolutely love doesn’t pay me what I need’
One contributor to the childcare labor crunch is that many workers are expecting more out of jobs than they did pre-pandemic – especially when it comes to money.
Sarah, a worker in Appalachia, said her coworkers are leaving for better paying jobs. “That causes a lot of instability for the kids as well, because they need to form strong emotional attachments with the adults in their lives,” she said.
Her workplace also is short staffed. She said they’ve had job postings up for months, but no one’s biting – probably because of the low pay: “We are living in poverty, and we’re not being given breaks.”
Sarah said childcare workers should get at least $US20 ($AU27) an hour. Instead, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the industry’s median wage is $US12.24 ($AU16) an hour, or $US25,460 ($AU34,140) a year. Preschool teachers make $US15 ($AU20).35 ($AU21) an hour – $US31,930 ($AU42,816) a year. That’s far below the overall median annual wage of $US41,950 ($AU56,252).
An analysis from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute finds that raising the minimum wage to $US15 ($AU20) an hour would benefit over half a million childcare workers. The Missouri teacher said she recently got a raise and now makes that. Still, “I don’t even make enough to qualify to rent a new place working full-time,” she said.
Leaving daycare to work with higher age-group students comes with a pay bump. Elementary school teachers have a median pay of $US60,940 ($AU81,716) a year, per BLS data, and there are better benefits.
A lead preschool teacher in Ohio who has worked in the industry for over a decade and said that they “love it to death.” They love going to school each day, and how the children are always so excited to see them. But that doesn’t make up for the pay.
“The wage that I make does not support my life,” they said. “And unfortunately, the job that I absolutely love doesn’t pay me what I need.”
They’re looking for other opportunities, specifically somewhere where they can make more than the $US13 ($AU17) an hour they make now. They just applied for a call center job that pays $US16 ($AU21) an hour: “And I can’t really say no to that.”
Insufficient supplies, training, vaccines, or bathroom breaks
Childcare workers just want some relief.
In some cases, that’s literal. Sarah told Insider that at her job, she was initially expected to work up to six hours straight without a bathroom break. There’d be no one else to watch the kids.
The lead toddler teacher in Missouri said there’s not enough supplies, no vaccine mandate, and it has been harder to teach things like phonics with masks on. They try to distance so that they can pull down masks to read lips and emotions.
She added the place seems to be hiring teachers that don’t “possess the qualities and characteristics that an educator should.” She said she’s seen things like an increase in time outs and “practices that are not developmentally appropriate.” All of this is contributing to her decision to seek out new employment outside of the industry she once found rewarding.
Another worker in Massachusetts isn’t planning to quit, but said she’s seen others leave the industry because of pandemic-related concerns. She added she’s seen people become nannies and others leave for other education positions and other jobs where they could potentially make more.
“The requirements that you need and the work that you put in doesn’t necessarily match the pay,” she said about why she thinks people may be considering leaving.
Qualified teachers quitting means instability in these preschools and childcare centers. But, according to the lead toddler teacher in Missouri, attempts to attract new workers with sign-on bonuses may also result in bringing in people who are only interested in the money incentive but might not stick around.
She said with the sign-on bonuses, “you’re just setting these kids up for failure,” explaining that some want the job for the incentive, and then leave. “They have a different teacher every week,” she said. “And it’s not good for them.”
Shane Dilello is one of the workers who already left. He loved working with kids, but left his job as an assistant teacher just a few weeks ago.
“I just had reached a tipping point,” he said. He struggled with the stress of the job, the turnover, and low pay and benefits. They took COVID precautions, he said, but young kids are still inclined to put their fingers in their mouths or wipe their noses – which didn’t help with the stress. He said that he was “mentally exhausted,” and felt that he had little time and energy to give to his own children.
“I figured it was in my best interest in terms of my health to go ahead and resign and seek employment elsewhere,” Dilello said. “As much as I did enjoy the job, and as much as I cared and loved the children whose care was entrusted to me, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
He’s since started a new job as a receptionist in the healthcare industry.
“We love kids, we’re doing this because we love kids,” Sarah said. “But the world is making it extremely difficult for us to work this job and continue to work this job.”