Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

This week, we’re focusing on the early education and care workforce.

Massachusetts readers, please join us at the upcoming rally on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. It’s State House Advocacy Day for early education and after- school programs. This event starts at 10:30 a.m. on the front steps of the State House.

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How bad is the workforce crisis in early education?

Imagine if the Patriots only had three players: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Malcolm Mitchell. They would work hard because that’s who they are. But instead of playing to win, they’d have to focus on making do.

This kind of limited roster is increasingly a challenge for preschool programs because the field’s low salaries are making it extremely tough to hire and keep staff.

One example from Western Massachusetts:

“Square One families are already feeling the effects of this crisis. Despite a critical need for need for infant, toddler and preschool programs, Square One has been forced to transition out of center-based care in Holyoke,” Joan Kagan writes in a opinion piece. Kagan is the president and CEO of Square One, a nonprofit organization that runs preschool programs. “We are experiencing an extreme shortage of employees as a result of the undeniably low wages that people in these positions are paid due to our low rate of reimbursement from the state.”

The workforce shortage is also affecting other human service sectors. As Kagan explains:

A recent report by the Providers’ Council, the state’s largest human services trade association, paints a troubling picture. Despite the heroic efforts of human services workers day in and day out, they cannot completely offset the impact of the workforce shortage. The crisis is beginning to create delays in care and disruptions to the all-important relationship between professional staff and families. Making matters worse, the report projects a 48 percent increase in demand for child care workers by 2024.”

The report adds:

“Human services jobs are both physically and emotionally demanding, requiring staff to be caring and resilient as they work with people facing significant challenges. Yet, as has been repeatedly documented over the past decade, direct service positions in this industry are paid a lower wage than their counterparts in health care, education, and government positions.”

Human service employers are making do, but it will take a comprehensive public policy plan to address these labor shortages.

The report says:

“In order to sustain the industry and meet its growing workforce needs, human services employers clearly reported that Massachusetts policy makers must work in partnership with them to develop comprehensive and coordinated solutions to this growing problem.”

Specifically, the report calls on Massachusetts to:

• champion the community-based human services industry

• attract millennials to community-based human services and develop career paths for these new workers

• increase funding for the publicly supported salaries of human service workers

• fund government mandates such as fingerprint screenings

• support loan forgiveness and tuition remission for human service workers, and

• set guidelines that make it easier to hire and retain foreign-born workers

Kagan writes that the workforce crisis has been “building for years and it has now reached the point where it requires immediate attention… Nothing less than the care of our children, families, friends and neighbors is at stake.”