The opening of a new child care centre in Dubbo earlier this month was a "massive relief" to desperate parents who have waited months for a placement. But a shortage of childcare workers in the area is making it difficult for existing centres to operate at full capacity.
"There have been times where we haven't been able to operate at full capacity because we don't have the staff for it," said Gemma Bailey, Assistant Director at Insight Early Learning Centre.
"We've definitely been experiencing quite a lot of trouble getting recruitment happening."
Insight Early Learning Centre opened its doors in Dubbo last November and has been "constantly recruiting". Because they have been operating with a casual pool of next to none when they had a wave of sickness through the centre they had to ask parents to keep their children home.
"With COVID and influenza and all of that - there was a few days a month ago where we had to put a post up on Facebook requesting parents who are staying home to keep their children home, due to low staff," said Ms Bailey.
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"We currently only have two casuals, who we found last week. There's definitely a shortage. Both of the casuals we have now are parents of children we have here - we were having a conversation in the kitchen about being low on staff and one of them overheard and offered to be a casual."
It's not just Dubbo which is seeing a shortage of childcare workers - the issue is occurring across the sector says Gabrielle Connell, Vice President ECS at the Independent Education Union of Australia
"We were finding it hard, particularly in rural areas, to get staff, and COVID-19 has just made it worse. And it's going to get harder - staff are worn out and leaving the sector," she told the Daily Liberal.
"One of the issues is there's no casuals to replace teachers who get sick so that puts pressure on other educators at the service because they're running low on numbers. It's not something that teachers and directors want to do - to have to call parents and say not to bring the kids in. It puts stress on people."
In the first quarter of this year, 8.1 percent of childcare providers were operating with a staffing waiver because they could not meet the legal requirement for suitably qualified early childhood teachers on staff.
"The most applicants we get are for trainees, it's really hard to get people qualified with Cert IIIs or Diplomas and Early Childhood Teachers with degrees are the hardest. It's been a struggle - we're lucky we've still been in ratio," said Ms Bailey.
In May, data from the National Skills Commission revealed the number of vacancies in early childhood education and care hit a record 6,648 positions. A search on online job board Seek turns up just under 100 job listings posted over the last 30 days in the early childhood sector in Dubbo and Central NSW.
To address issues in the industry, the NSW Government announced in June that it would inject $5 billion into the early childhood education sector over 10 years. The plan includes building more centres in "childcare deserts" in suburban, regional and rural NSW and offering $25,000 scholarships for diploma and certificate qualified workers to upskill with early childhood degrees.
Four Dubbo early childhood teachers - including Insight Early Learning centre's Jasmine Caton - were announced as scholarship recipients this week.
But the Independent Education Union criticised the plan for "insufficiently" addressing staffing issues - saying scholarship graduates were not incentivised to work in childcare centres and could get better pay for using their degree to work in primary schools. Degree qualified early childhood educators are sometimes paid $20,000 a year less than equally-qualified school teachers.
"What we're advocating for is better pay and conditions. The award for early childhood teachers is barely manageable and terrible for someone with a degree. We need to increase salaries to be at parity with teachers in primary and high school," said Ms Connell.
"There has to be some sort of provision in there that if you get a scholarship you have to go into childcare - and in a rural or regional area."
On September 7 - which marks Early Childhood Educators Day - childcare workers with the United Workers' Union across NSW will be walking off the job to highlight issues with pay and working conditions within the sector.
"Educators are leaving the sector in record numbers every week, due to burn-out, workload and low pay. Centres across the country are having to limit enrolments, close rooms and cancel staff leave," said a representative from the union.
Despite the stress and responsibility that comes with the job, Ms Bailey said she loves working in child care and it can be an incredibly rewarding career.
"I've been in the industry for nearly 10 years and going on that journey with families is amazing. Watching the children grow from being in the baby room, all the way up until the 4 to 5 room, and then graduating, and seeing how they've come - it's so sad to see them go but you're so proud."