Severe childcare staff shortages across the region are forcing daycare centres to reduce their numbers, at a time when families are already struggling to find care.
It comes as south-west centres report between one and two year wait time for new families to access daycare.
The Standard first highlighted the issue in July 2021, with centres reporting 12 to 18-month wait-time for desperate families.
A shortage of qualified staff both in the south-west and across the nation is fueling the "workforce crisis" as educators leave the profession for new industries and centre directors try to recruit, with little success.
Thrive by Five, a campaign to make the system high quality and accessible, says the crisis is jeopardising access to high-quality care in the critical early years and when families needed support.
"There is a workforce crisis in the early childhood education and care sector, with thousands of job vacancies, high staff turnover and inadequate pay and conditions for educators," its director Jay Weatherill said.
"Across the nation, Omicron has ramped up existing, long-term workforce shortages, with additional pressure from furloughed staff driving room closures and now shortages in key team leadership positions."
A Warrnambool City Council spokesman said its childcare waiting lists were due to workforce shortages being felt nationally.
"Facilities have the space to take on families but are unable to do so because of staff shortages," he said.
The spokesman said as with most businesses, COVID-19 had put pressure on centres as staff were forced to isolate. He said it was "particularly challenging" at the start of 2022 with the situation compounded by the shortages.
The spokesman said an increased number of families wanted to relocate but housing shortages, regardless of if they were looking to buy or rent, made it difficult.
Warrnambool's Koala Childcare and Early Learning Centre service manager Gill Marsden said it was constantly recruiting, but struggled to get quality applicants.
"It's not for lack of trying," Ms Marsden said. "There's a shortage of educators who don't want to do it anymore. It's very challenging.
"It's a hard job and it's not a well paid profession.
"Probably the last year there's people choosing to leave the industry because it has become too difficult.
"The training organisations are trying to recruit and our head office is really supportive with recruitment.
"They're constantly looking for people for us but it's just a case of not getting quality applications."
She said the centre was "absolutely" seeing the same demand for care as last year, with more people relocating and the city "can't keep up". "We've already started our 2023 wait list."
Ms Marsden said the centre was licensed for 162 children per day, but couldn't give a "definitive" wait-list number as each family's needs differed.
She is calling for incentives or "government intervention" to encourage workers into the sector.
"I know with bachelor trained educators, the government is offering good incentives for people to move or relocate," Ms Marsden said.
"But it's difficult for them to find housing if they're moving to the area. There's just a whole heap of barriers."
She said a company incentive for educators with young children to receive 75 per cent off their childcare gap fee was a "game-changer" but "still not enough to fill the gap".
Another south-west centre director said the industry was "screaming out" for quality educators and it had long-term vacancies.
It's also limited its intake of children because of the lack of staff. She said the city needed more centres but that would create more problems staffing them as worker demand grew.
"There's no one available," she said. "I'm not envious of the new centre opening because I don't know how they'll fill it. I've got no idea."
IN OTHER NEWS:
She said some educators had changed industries completely, while others left after having children as it wasn't family-friendly once children reached school age.
She said there had to be "some kind of enticement to study and stay in the industry long term" and COVID-19 hadn't helped, as students placements were cancelled and they couldn't "see how good the industry can be".
Moyne Shire Council-run centres have also been forced to limit capacity due to a lack of "suitably qualified staff".
Corporate and community services acting director Peter Brown said it was an industry-wide problem and its centres were full.
Mr Brown said the Port Fairy Community Services Centre turtle room opening had increased its capacity to 58 places, while Hawkesdale has 15 and Chatsworth has 19 spots.
Corangamite Shire has this month advertised eight early childhood roles that it is trying to fill.
Community services manager Katie Hearn said the workforce pressures weren't unique to the shire and it had begun a number of early years traineeships to grow local educator numbers.
She said wait times at its centres varied between 12 to 24 months, with about 60 children currently on the waitlist.
Ms Hearn said while the demand for daycare had been consistent during the COVID-19 pandemic, its workforce had also been impacted by staff isolating.
Project pushed back
Families will now have to wait for a new childcare centre that was due to open in Warrnambool mid-year, which was hoped would help to ease some of the demand.
Ongoing COVID-19-related delays and uncertainty around building supplies and costs have further delayed the construction the 124-place centre in Warrnambool.
The centre, to be constructed in Verdon Street at the former Bells Garden Centre site, is now expected to be open early 2023.
It comes as another new centre is proposed for Warrnambool's Dales Road, with the plans unveiled this month.
When the development plan was submitted to council it said four-out-of-five child care centres and two or three early learning centres in North East Warrnambool had no vacancies.
Listen to our wrap of the 2022 Port Fairy Folk Festival:
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content:
Now just one tap with our new app: Digital subscribers now have the convenience of faster news, right at your fingertips with The Standard:
Have you signed up to The Standard's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in the south-west.