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Mel Gravely

How to Recruit Head Start Staff During a Labor Shortage

Early childhood education programs across the country face unprecedented shortages in staff, a problem that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The child care industry employment rate is down more than 10 percent from pre-pandemic levels and child care staff hiring has become more challenging than ever, as the Office of Head Start (OHS) explains in a recently released letter.

Unfortunately the labor shortage has become somewhat of a vicious cycle, as some childcare workers have had to leave the industry due to their own lack of childcare. In an article posted on called “Underlying all the labor shortages? A ‘crisis’ in the child care sector creating a vicious cycle for working parents,” some parents told the publication that the lack of child care options have been a source of constant stress. 

One mother of a 15-month-old said she has had a hard time finding open spots in her local day cares, so right now she is working from home and caring for her child at the same time.

Because day care is often funded through a combination of public sector dollars and parent contribution, raising wages in the sector without adding cost to families is a balancing act. Many employers explain that if they raise their wages, they’ll have to pass the costs onto customers.

Head Start wants to do everything it can to make sure programs get to full enrollment and serve as many kids as they are funded for, despite the labor shortages. The good news is that American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds were made available last spring for programs to invest in recruiting, supporting and retaining staff.  OHS urges states, communities, and local programs to take bold actions with ARP funds and other sources of COVID-19 relief funding to address the current early childhood workforce shortage. 

We would like to discuss some strategies on how to use these funds to help support your early child care workforce staff in the short-term, starting with salary and benefits. 

Employee compensation and benefits are an important component of any program’s ability to recruit and maintain a skilled and motivated workforce. 

OHS suggests in its letter:

  • Increasing staff wages or providing one-time incentives such as hiring or retention bonuses.
  • Providing benefits including paid leave, health insurance, child care and retirement benefits.
  • Funding scholarships and time off for training or enrollment in educational coursework, apprenticeships, or other practice-based learning that leads towards a credential or degree
  • Expand shared services models, substitute pools, and family child care networks.
  • Provide staff wellness support such as guaranteed breaks during the work day, access to adult-sized furniture in classrooms, mentoring and coaching, and/or mental health consultation for ECE staff and providers.

It is also important to create a culture of belonging for staff so they feel a part of the Head Start mission. Supporting staff with continued education and training can be one part of that, as suggested above. You can also learn what drives staff motivation. Not everyone is motivated solely by money, although that’s often part of it. Many crave things like recognition or a sense of community. 

Understanding what parents and childcare workers are challenged with right now will help your program best determine where ARP funds can be used to provide additional financial support and motivation for a stronger returning childcare workforce. For more detailed tips from ECLKC like how to develop collaborative efforts and initiatives with community partners to enrich your staff, see their article Supporting a Strong Education Workforce. 

This past year and a half has taught us that federal investments in early care programs are key to our nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic, providing critical infrastructure for parents to work or to pursue training or education while their child is in an affordable, safe, nurturing and educationally enriching environment.

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