There has never been a better time to consider a career in childcare
by Eva Hayes
With a massive shortage of highly trained childcare staff in Ireland, the Government has plans to recruit an additional 17,000 childcare workers by 2010.
As the Government grapples with the thorny issue of childcare, it has committed to expanding childcare services around the country. Under its National Childcare Investment Plan 2006-2010, it plans to recruit an additional 17,000 childcare workers.
Former Minister for Children, Brian Lenihan, stressed that proper training would be a central plank of that strategy but experts have warned that "a massive shortage" of highly trained childcare workers is pending.
With recruitment on the up, and a shortage of trained childcare workers, there is likely to be a glut of jobs in the near future. And, as the childcare sector becomes increasingly regulated and professional, the opportunities for career advancement are also improving.
Workers in the early years and childcare sector carry out a wide variety of jobs in a number of different settings. Workers can find a career in day nurseries, out-of-school care, playgroups, as a nanny at home and abroad, or work as a childminder in their own home. Those with an entrepreneurial streak may decide to establish their own business.
Naoimh O'Dwyer, chairperson of the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA), is owner/manager of Knollcrest Nursery in Moycullen, County Galway. She set up the business ten years ago and employs nine people.
Knollcrest Nursery provides childcare for children between the ages of 2 and 12 years on a full-time, sessional and after-school basis. They have 70 children on their books and care for up to 40 young children at any one time.
O'Dwyer's background is as a registered general and paediatric nurse. She also holds a diploma in child psychology and communications from The Royal College of Surgeons.
O'Dwyer said she decided to set up her own business as she felt there was a need for "a well-run and well organised facility" in the area. "It is increasingly recognised as a professional career. There are courses and qualifications that weren't available before and many of the bigger creches have a strong preference for people with relevant qualifications," she said.
This was reiterated by a spokeswoman for Giraffe Childcare, who said about 95 per cent of their childcare workers had relevant professional qualifications. Those who don't boast a professional qualification have extensive experience, the spokeswoman added.
"It is all about interpersonal relations and not just about the child in your arms"
O'Dwyer said she also looks for a number of personal attributes when hiring new staff. "A good understanding and interest in children is important. People need to be energetic and enthusiastic and have a pleasant disposition. They need to be reliable, dependable and able to cope in a crisis. It is also important to recognise that it is hugely demanding work and that there is a huge level of responsibility involved," she said.
O'Dwyer said the work is very diverse. "You are liaising with parents. You work with psychologists, speech therapists and with special needs children. It is all about interpersonal relations and not just about the child in your arms," she explained.
As our understanding of the significance of early years and childcare services increases, so do expectations about the kinds of services and the quality of services that should be available to children and families.
Conseqently, the work carried out in many childcare facilities has become more targeted, as many have adopted curriculums based on the work of world famous theorists in childcare, such as Dewey, Montessori, Erickson and Piaget.
There are plenty of job opportunities available at present, as more and more childcare facilities and creches are opening up, but the early years and childcare workforce faces particular challenges in developing better career pathways. Workers have identified the lack of career development opportunities as a key concern.
There is little evidence of early years and childcare staff moving across the local authority, private and voluntary sectors and there continues to be significant barriers to this arising largely from pay and conditions differentials across the sectors.
The workforce tends to be quite young and the opportunties for progression and promotion are "not great," O'Dwyer said.
Orla Nevins of Bright Horizons believes the situation has improved as large organisations have begun to expand across the country and created opportunities for workers to move up the ladder.
"We have opened three new centres this year and this opens up positions such as centre manager, deputy manager and area mnanager. Area managers are hevaily involved in marketing, recruitment, controlling budgets and finances, as well as in support and training," she said.
If you own your own creche there is paperwork, accounts and staffing issues to contend with, added O'Dwyer.
Why, when a massive shortage of qualified childcare staff is looming, does half the population consider this career as a no-go area?
While ownership and managerial positions invariably offer the prospect of higher pay, remuneration is notoriously poor in this sector. It is not unknown for those starting out to earn wages to be on a par with the minimum wage, although having a good qualification will certainly bolster your salary.
It is difficult to get a figure on the numbers working in childcare as many at-home workers are not accounted for in national statistics, but the workforce remains predominantly female.
This has prompted experts to ask why, when a massive shortage of qualified childcare staff is looming, half the population consider this career as a no-go area.
Research carried out by the State agency Pobal found that the proportion of men working in childcare had shrunk from an already derisory 1.5 per cent in 2004 to 0.4 per cent in 2005.
Bright Horizons has 170 employees across its twelve offices, but nearly all are women. Nevins said this is despite the fact that the company is keen to employ men who are positive role models and who "add a different energy".
Most industry experts attribute the low percentage of male workers to cultural barriers. The need to address this has been highlighted. So too has the need to raise the status and professionalism of the early years and childcare workforce. Linked to this is the need to build better opportunities for career progression.
Recent policy developments underline a growing realisation about the importance of the sector. According to O'Dwyer, new regulations regarding health and safety, size, the ratio of workers to children, and the vetting of people working in the childcare sector are imminent. Working in early years and childcare is undoubtedly set to become increasingly challenging and rewarding.
There are plenty of courses available to prospective childcare workers. Among the more popular are the FETAC awards system, which offers students without Leaving Cert a progression route to continue their studies right up to third level.
If a student wishes to pursue a career in childcare but has no formal qualifications or experience of working with children, they could start off by studying for a FETAC Foundation Level Cert.
Students who are successful at Foundation Level may continue studying and advance to Certificate, Diploma and in some cases Degree courses in institutes of Technology and Universities nationwide.
The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is another option for students wishing to study childcare. This year, the tenth group of students have graduated from the LCA programme, which is expanding year on year and is now on offer in 370 schools and centres around the country.
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