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Dispatches from Gunnedah

Access to childcare is crucial for attracting skilled employees to inland Australia, writes Susan Frater-Sims.

A special hello to you if you are reading this Research News lying on or near a beach. Are you finding the waves are really loud, there is salt in your eyes and the gritty sand is making it hard to turn the page?

I don’t have those ‘problems’, because I live and work inland. There are lots of positive things to say about it too. As an independent researcher in regional New South Wales, I enjoy contributing my skills and experience towards tangible projects, such as a recent project to help Gunnedah Shire, which is located in north-west NSW, attract more skilled employees.

It was a team effort, with the local chamber, council and employers working together. The Gunnedah and District Chamber of Commerce and Industry was named 2017’s Best LocalChamber of Commerce by the state’s peak business organisation, the NSW Business Chamber, which is a significant achievement.

Representatives from a targeted range of Gunnedah businesses and support services were originally invited to a ‘Skills Round Table’, a facilitated meeting to develop strategies to attract even more skilled staff to the region. During the meeting, participants expressed concern that perceptions about the availability of childcare and suitable accommodation stock might constrain success. As a result, Gunnedah Chamber sought funding from the Gunnedah Shire Council’s Business Partner Program and advertised for expressions of interest to undertake the research necessary to size and scope the issue.

Looking at both sides of the coin
The research project was undertaken over three weeks and covered demand-side and supply-side face-to-face interviews. Paper questionnaires were dropped off (by appointment) and
telephone surveys were conducted. These methods were time consuming but ensured responses came from a wider range of businesses and service providers than just those engaged Chamber members responding to the invitation to opt in.

Also, the Chamber executive had noted reduced response rates to online surveys and there were other government and business chamber surveys out at around the same time, so survey fatigue was a risk. To achieve our desired sample of different-sized employers, our team door knocked main street shopfronts as well as businesses in the industrial and outlying areas, made appointments to see human resource managers and tracked down information from central head offices where necessary. Using local researchers engaged in making their region even better – there’s nothing like it for commitment.

The results of the research into demand for child care was actually quite startling: 57 per cent of employers surveyed reported staff had missed work in the last six months due to children being unable to be cared for and 22 per cent reported staff had declined work in the last six months due to not being able to access childcare. Childcare constraints were no longer anecdotal; they were seriously impacting businesses and families. These research findings have since been credited with encouraging positive change at a faster rate.

Our supply-side research involved surveying the 14 childcare providers in Gunnedah Shire (including the surrounding smaller centres). Overall, they employed 120 people and provided 420 places across home care, day care and pre-schools, separate from outside-school-hours and holiday care. We found there was good availability for places for children aged three to five, but there was demand for more places for those aged under three, particularly babies, and for 24/7 options, especially for parents who were shift workers in our local health services or in the mining and support industries.

The research revealed structural issues need to be addressed, including the staffing of the childcare centres. The national standard ratio of educators (skilled staff required) to children depends on the ages – it’s one to 10 pre-schoolers and just one to four babies, so staffing costs for babies are much higher. Importantly, to train new staff or to upskill required them to travel away from Gunnedah for training, a further impost of time and money. At the same time, it was necessary to backfill their role to ensure local families’ day care needs were still met.

Implementing the insights
The results of the childcare research were shared in a follow-up workshop with childcare providers, while the outcomes and recommendations were shared with Chamber members, survey participants and Council. The Chamber was able to use the research and workshop outcomes to provide information to key state government stakeholders and representatives.

As a result of the research, the following changes have been
implemented to date:

• TAFE Gunnedah is now delivering the Certificate III and the Diploma in Early Childhood and Care locally
• Employers have access to information to assist current and potential employees with sourcing childcare
• There has been at least one application for a new childcare centre and there are more qualified in-home care operators and new nannies resolving family childcare needs.

These are all great outcomes from a really enjoyable research project.

I trust you have similar rewards with your projects in 2020 and if you are ever coming through Gunnedah, give me a call and we’ll have coffee!

Author: Susan Frater-Sims, WIXIM Consulting

This article also appears in the November 2019 – January 2020 edition of AMSRS publication, Research News – Summer Reading. Check out the rest of the articles in this edition.

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