Child care professionals are more than essential workers: They are the foundation that makes all other workforces possible. In the last year, the conversation around early childhood educators has grown louder—but even before the pandemic, early childhood educators have been undervalued, underpaid, and overworked.
In North Carolina, most early childhood educators cannot make a living wage at their job, leading to high turnover rates and a tight labor market which causes many families difficulty in finding appropriate child care. Even before the pandemic, advocates and economists have called for systemic and structural changes to the early childhood education ecosystem so educators can make a living wage, receive the benefits they need, and feel supported in their careers.
Lack of Worthy Wages
In North Carolina, the latest report issued in November of 2020 found that starting wages for child care center professionals were approximately $10.50/hour; assistant teachers were paid just $10/hour. For workers at a 5-star center, teachers started at $13.46/hour and assistant teachers started at $11.51/hour. Family child care providers running their businesses from their homes made significantly less at just $9.09/hour—and yet many worked more than 40 hours per week with no benefits. (6,7,8)
Additionally, individuals working with infants and toddlers earn less than those working with preschool children (age 3–5), leading to concerns about hiring and retaining staff during a child’s first 2,000 days—arguably the most crucial time for a child to have the support they need.
There is also much room for improvement in employee benefits, particularly as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. As of November 2020, less than half of North Carolina early childhood educators have access to healthcare coverage through their employers. Single site for-profit centers—the largest sector within the child care market at approximately 39 percent—are the least likely to offer health coverage in addition to also paying the lowest wages.
Retaining Early Childhood Educators
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has led to record-high job losses across the country, many employers are still reporting difficulty in filling open positions.
North Carolina lost approximately 867,000 employed workers between February and April 2020, but of that group, only a small percentage sought another job. In May 2020, the number of job seekers increased only by 147,000.
Early childhood education (ECE) programs have struggled to retain teachers for far too long. In 2014, the national turnover rate for ECE staff (defined as the percentage of classroom staff who left their center in the 12 months preceding the study) was 13 percent and increased to 25 percent for any turnover. In 2015, the NC Early Care and Education Workforce study discovered that 18 percent of full-time teachers and assistant teachers in North Carolina left their classrooms in the year preceding the survey; 17 percent of those surveyed planned to leave the field within the next three years.
Why are so many teachers leaving their profession? Advocates and researchers in early childhood education cite a few obstacles, including low wages and insufficient benefits. These statistics depict a desolate landscape for America’s child care system—particularly for an industry that is undeniably imperative. This constant devaluation of early childhood education is in part due to systemic inequity and injustice that plagues the field: 99 percent of early childhood educators are women, 47 percent are women of color.
Working Toward Economic Recovery
In North Carolina, building a more sustainable workforce and economy depends greatly on the state of child care. Early childhood educators single-handedly make economic recovery and growth feasible—but there is work to be done.
Here’s what we’re seeing at the moment: