CBC News: Higher pay urged for Alberta early childhood educators as space expansion underway

Advocates say Alberta needs to improve compensation for early childhood educators so they stay in the system at the same time the number of spaces is expanding dramatically under the federal government's plan for $10-a-day child care. 

Under the $3.8-billion Alberta Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement, the province must create a minimum of 42,500 non-profit licensed child-care spaces by 2026.

While the agreement provides extra money to improve compensation and training for early childhood educators (ECEs), it doesn't do much to help a sector plagued by low hourly wages, a lack of benefits and a pay system that fails to account for an individual's years of experience, competency and extra responsibilities. 

Alberta is allowed to continue its system of funding top-ups to low base wages. Level 1 ECEs received a 50-cent bump in their hourly top-up on Jan. 1. That brings the average wage up to $19.43 an hour. About 40 percent of Alberta's licensed child-care educators are at a Level 1 certification.

Amanda Rosset, chair of the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta (AECEA), said the province needs to address the worker shortage or the new licensed spaces will go unfilled.

"From what we hear, compensation is often a barrier for for many individuals," Rosset said. "I think that if they were remunerated for their work in in that way, I think that we would probably see more retention in the sector."

Advocates say ECEs tired of low wages and a lack of opportunities for advancement have quit to work elsewhere. The lack of proper compensation is also a disincentive for recruitment. 

Wage grid

AECEA released a report at the end of February that examined how to properly compensate early childhood educators.

The Alberta Compensation Framework Report estimates Alberta will need between 7,000 to 10,000 more ECEs to support the expansion in child-care spaces over the next two years.

The report examined the idea of a wage grid where workers receive pay increases as they gain more experience and competence. It also said adopting non-salaried forms of compensation, such as health benefit plans and access to a pension, would also help retain ECEs.

Improving compensation would create what the report calls a "a respected and professional sector."

The ECE workforce is 96 per cent female, a factor that has contributed to the historically low wages. The public sees the work as "mothering" and that working with children is enjoyable for these workers so they don't require adequate compensation, the report said.

Future actions outlined in the report include proposing a grid that takes into account things like the higher cost of living in places such as Canmore and Fort McMurray, and other factors such as inflation. 

Earlier this month, Children's Services Minister Mickey Amery told MLAs on the legislature's standing committee on families and communities that Alberta agreed to look at a wage grid idea when it signed the federal-provincial agreement. But he made no other commitments.

"We fundamentally believe that our educators need to grow consistent with the growth of daycare operators in this province to support an overall strengthened daycare system," Amery said. 

"While we currently are exploring options for a wage grid and other benefit considerations, we continue to support the ECE workforce through a long-standing wage top-up model."

Creativity needed

Rosset acknowledged that talk of higher wages make child-care operators uneasy because it raises questions about how they can pay them, especially when parent fees must be at $10 a day by 2026.

She said it will take creativity and a willingness to build a new system that can keep parent fees affordable while keeping operators happy and paying ECEs what they are worth. 

"Sometimes we get stuck within the ways that we've currently been doing things because that's what we've always done," she said. "I would challenge them to rethink this and really think about supply-side funding."

Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, a national child-care advocacy group, said Alberta needs to decide what kind of system it wants and plan for it.

The province is adding 254 seats to the 3,071 spaces in post-secondary early learning programs over the next three years. It has also increased the number of spaces in the online course that can get someone certified as a Level 1 ECE from 4,000 to 10,000.

A pilot project in Calgary is underway to train and place about 230 immigrant women to work as ECEs by 2024. The province also launched a digital recruiting campaign that will run for a month. 

Ballantyne suggested the province is using these tactics to keep up with the expanded capacity, but that making an effort to hire the workers that receive the lowest pay sends a negative message about how it values the work.  

"What we are also doing is actually reinforcing the notion that early learning and childcare is a low-paid sector, low-wage sector and it doesn't make it a sector that's terribly attractive to join," she said.

Having a plan to ensure these Level 1 workers can develop and get more education so they can earn higher wages would be a better plan, she said.

Ballantyne said every jurisdiction in Canada is having problems recruiting and keeping early childhood educators but no one is doing a great job finding a solution.

She said the federal government, provinces and territories need to create a national strategy. 

Like Rosset, Ballantyne said Alberta needs to decide what kind of high quality system it wants to have and build it the same way as the public health and education systems.

"It's for everybody's benefit to have a a system that will really serve families well, will serve children well, and in serving families will also contribute to economic growth," she said.

Bellefontaine, M. (2023) “Higher pay urged for Alberta early childhood educators as space expansion underway,” CBC News, 3 April. https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.6798208