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New Paper: From Health Care to Education, the Early Childhood Workforce Is in Crisis

As an organization, ICS focuses on the systems that support young children and their families to help them thrive, spanning health care, child welfare, and early care and education. In order to deliver on the promise of these investments, we need well-trained, well-compensated professionals who can bring their expertise, passion, and commitment to their fields. But across sectors, our society currently underinvests in the needs of this workforce–leading to burnout for professionals and missed opportunities for families.

In our new research paper, “Early Childhood Workforce: Supporting the Professionals Who Support Our Families,” we look at what we broadly define as the “early childhood workforce,”–sectors serving children including medical, education, social work, mental health, and child care. Traditionally, the professionals working in the early childhood sector have been discussed in their individual silos. While these distinctions may be necessary for the sake of funding and regulations, at the end of the day this workforce all serves different needs of the same families within a community and face many related issues. It may not seem intuitive to discuss the earnings of a child care provider compared to a pediatrician–but a review of the research shows that both are under-compensated compared to their adult-serving peers and face high levels of burnout. Change in the sectors is more likely when we view these challenges as inextricably interconnected rather than as separate spheres.

We identify four themes that emerge across these sectors, and all deeply influence each other–and that can best be addressed at a holistic, systems level:

You don’t have to look very far to see the urgency of this issue. In the era of COVID-19, we see another news story or viral post each day about the shortage of child care providers; of mental health providers overwhelmed by new patient requests; of medical staff physically and emotionally drained. While our paper considers the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the state of early childhood professions, the fact of the matter is these issues have existed, largely unaddressed, for decades in these sectors. Decades of systemic underinvestment in health and human service fields–and in particular, child-serving fields–have been brought to their breaking point by the current crisis.

The damage cannot be undone overnight, and certainly cannot be the responsibility of individual providers to fix; we cannot “self-care” our way out of systemic burnout and retention issues. Rather, the brief focuses on tangible steps policymakers and organizations can take to move toward research-backed investments and supports. Significant new financial resources–and adjustments to current funding structures–have the power to make a notable difference in the stability and quality of the workforce serving young children. While important, however, employers and policymakers can make a number of smaller steps toward supporting this workforce in the meantime. Underscoring all of this is the need for data on the workforces themselves, their demographics, and challenges.

To paraphrase a popular proverb: the best time to invest in the early childhood workforce was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

Megan Carolan

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