Pay and conditions for workers in the early years sector must improve, with additional State investment, to avoid an exodus of staff in the coming years, according a new study commissioned by Early Years Ireland which represents providers in the sector.

The research entitled 'Pathways to Better Prospects: Delivering Proper Terms and Conditions for the Early Years Workforce in Ireland' was carried out by the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the University of Limerick, and found that while there has been a substantial upskilling of staff in the sector, labour turnover remains a problem.

"It is critical though to emphasise that efforts to develop professionalisation, such as through increased training, the development of a professional body, changes in job titles and so on, are unlikely to change the trajectory of recruitment and retention challenges in the absence of sustained and substantial actions on the funding of pay and conditions," the report concludes.

It highlights a 2019 survey which found that 65% of 3,200 early years professionals do not expect to be working in the sector in five years' time.

It also cites a more recent survey of 1,000 professionals carried out during the pandemic which found that 32% intended to leave the sector within the next 12 months.

The research notes that between 2011 and 2016, the number of people in the early years labour force with a higher certificate or honours degree more than doubled.

It states that improving recruitment and retention in low paid jobs is "notoriously difficult".

"In some low paid sectors, where there are not high skill requirements, employers can partly address high turnover rates by expanding the supply of labour to include for example, students and migrant workers, and this widening of labour supply has historically been used in low paid sectors to suppress wages," the report warns.

Early Childhood Ireland supports 3,800 childcare members (Stock image, Getty Images)

Early Childhood Ireland called on the Government to increase investment to ensure proper pay and conditions for early years professionals, saying they should be treated on a par with professionals in the wider care and education sector.

CEO Teresa Heeney said the backdrop to the vital work of such professionals was one of "low rates of pay and the absence of a clearly defined career path."

"The reality is that the early years workforce remains in a policy limbo. On the one hand, employers in the sector have the legal authority but not the financial capacity to improve pay and conditions and, on the other hand, the State has the financial capacity but not the legal authority of an employer.

"This has led to an unsustainable policy 'merry-go-round' with no winners," she stated.

Ms Heeney noted that the Covid-19 crisis had shown that the Government had the capacity to fund early years services in unprecedented ways.

"For years, Early Childhood Ireland has been calling for the Government to contribute to staff pay in our sector. And, for years, we have been told it was simply not feasible.

"It has taken a global pandemic for the Government to demonstrate that it does, in fact, have the financial capacity to do this," said Ms Heeney.

"At a minimum, this needs to continue beyond the special Covid measures. Otherwise, we will continue to have highly-qualified staff on low pay. That is not acceptable or sustainable," she concluded.

Early Childhood Ireland supports 3,800 childcare members covering 100,000 and their families through pre-school, after-school and full day care provision in Ireland.