Four challenges facing the early childhood workforce

Four challenges facing the early childhood workforce

Four challenges facing the early childhood workforce — and what we can do to address them

Vidya Putcha and Maggie Gratz, Results for Development

We know that early childhood personnel – preschool teachers, home visitors, community health workers - are critical in the lives of young children, but who are these workers and how can they be best supported? The Early Childhood Workforce Initiative (ECWI), a global, multi-stakeholder effort, has been working to generate new knowledge and resources to help policymakers and program managers better address these very questions.

To understand country priorities and ongoing efforts around the early childhood workforce, a team from Results for Development and the International Step by Step Association conducted 43 key informant interviews across 15 countries — Bangladesh, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Georgia, Ghana, Jordan, Kenya, Moldova, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zambia — earlier this year. We spoke with 28 country experts from implementing NGOs, multilaterals, and research institutions, and 15 policymakers, including program managers and government officials. This series of interviews helped us identify country priorities, learn about promising approaches, and gauge interest from policymakers and officials in piloting a needs assessment tool for diagnosing gaps and workforce needs.

Countries’ priorities surrounding the early childhood workforce, as well as their main challenges in offering workforce support were unique and context-driven. Nevertheless, we were able to deduce the following four, overarching takeaways from our interviews:

1. Training is a core challenge that programs are trying to tackle.

Experts, government officials, and program managers consistently noted the lack of training opportunities for members of the workforce, as a result of factors such as the high cost of scaling up training programs, as well as a scarcity of skilled trainers. Respondents also perceived training programs, where they existed, to be of variable quality given the absence of national standards and guidance, limited emphasis on experiential learning, and challenges experienced in supporting workers with low levels of formal education and familiarity with child development topics.

While there was acknowledgment that implementing widespread and effective training programs was a challenge, we heard from respondents about a number of efforts underway to address these training gaps for frontline workers in order to improve the quality of ECD services. Some examples that were given include: development of induction programs to onboard new personnel and partnerships with universities and civil society organizations to improve or design new training programs or diploma/degree programs for early childhood personnel. For example, in Ghana, Sabre Education has partnered with teacher training colleges and the Ghana Education Service to improve the experience of student teachers’ placements. Similarly, in Georgia, the Coalition of Early Childhood Intervention Organizations, have collaborated with government and universities to train early childhood intervention specialists.

2. Recruiting and retaining a strong workforce is a major challenge, and few countries are experimenting with efforts to address it. 

Policymakers and experts face challenges recruiting qualified early childhood workers who will remain in their roles over time. While programs find it difficult to attract qualified workers in general, the challenge is exacerbated in rural areas. Additionally, once workers receive training and better qualifications, they may be incentivized to leave the program for other jobs. This challenge is very much linked to the issues surrounding training discussed above as well as the poor working conditions and status of many workers. For example, we heard that many members of the early childhood workforce receive low pay and have insecure contracts, despite long hours, wide-ranging responsibilities and heavy workloads. 

Although these were raised as barriers, few respondents described efforts underway to address these challenges. This highlights an opportunity for countries — often facing persistent budgetary constraints — to exchange information around potential solutions. However, one country where we did learn of efforts to improve working conditions was Kenya, where Community Health Volunteers in Siaya County have begun to receive stipends and health insurance coverage as compensation for their work to support early childhood development and health service delivery more generally.

3. Generally, countries are not focused on implementing mentoring programs or establishing official pathways for career development.

Despite the potential for these efforts to augment and preserve training program outcomes, and motivate personnel in their day to day roles, very few respondents noted efforts underway to establish mentoring or other forms of ongoing support to early childhood workers. Respondents cited the limited supply of supervisors and their lack of technical expertise as a challenge. Additionally, without program or personnel standards, many countries struggle to create pathways for workers to develop professionally. However, we did learn of initiatives that would lay the groundwork for the creation of career pathways, such as developing worker competences and certification and licensing systems. For example, in Ecuador, child care and home visiting workers are now eligible to receive a certificate of work competences after completing a two-month theoretical and practical workshop which covers topics such as early childhood care, nutrition, health, early stimulation, and engagement with families.

4. Policymakers want more data to better understand the workforce and find ways to support them.

Policymakers want information about their country’s early childhood development workforce, but are hindered by data gaps in several areas. Understanding workforce training levels, demographics, working conditions, and other crucial factors — across sectors and at all levels of government — can guide future policy development and assist governments in identifying resource gaps. Building this foundation of comprehensive information on the early childhood workforce is therefore a clear priority in many countries. Compiling qualitative and quantitative data on key workforce roles is necessary, but it is equally important for countries to assemble a systems-level understanding of the early childhood workforce and its strengths and challenges, which can inform policy efforts to strengthen this workforce.

Over the next six months, the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative will continue to build on what we learned from those who are working every day to support young children and families. These conversations will guide and inform: (a) a compendium of country briefs, which will highlight promising workforce practices across geographies and services and (b) a needs assessment tool to support government officials and program managers. Stay tuned for more updates!

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