Childcare shortages are showing no signs of easing with a Warrnambool GP faced with the prospect of having to stop work by the end of the year if she can't find a place for her youngest child.
The crisis has seen the waiting list balloon out to more than 300, and after two-and-a-half years of being on the waiting list Dr Eli Cowling said she was shocked to find out there were still 58 people in front of her.
And with the region facing a worker skills shortage, the Middle Island Medical Clinic doctor has spoken to many patients who said they would be back at work if they could find places for their children.
Wannon MP Dan Tehan, who was approached by concerned parents, met with Warrnambool City Council staff and chief executive officer Peter Schneider this week about the crisis which has even affected council-run facilities.
The council said it had the capacity to take more children if it could only find the staff - and it was actively recruiting as a matter of urgency.
There are two new childcare centres in the pipeline for the city - the one that has a permit to begin building says it will be open in the second half of next year and the other is yet to get approval.
South West Tafe offers two courses that would give potential employees the qualifications to work in early childhood and has 65 students enrolled. In 2021, 44 students completed their qualification in Early Childhood Education in Care, and so far 11 have completed their qualifications this year.
Tafe said it was seeing an increase in the number of workplace trainees, and there was a high level of interest from secondary school students. "We have a new training package for which we aim to deliver in semester two of this year," it said.
Dr Cowling said she was able to get family daycare for her child 18 months ago but now had to look for an alternative because the carer had fallen pregnant.
"I'm very happy for her but that's left me with finding a new childcare service for my three-and-a-half-year-old," she said.
"I was still on the wait list for a few childcare centres, and after two-and-a-half years of being on the wait list I was very shocked to find out that I was 59th on the wait list." And she was almost laughed at when she said she needed to have care for five days a week so she could work.
Dr Cowling said she was then in "a bit of a hysterical mess" because she realised she would literally have to stop work if she couldn't find childcare. "Which is just absurd given the huge shortage of doctors in the area," she said. "I'm completely booked out, my books are closed."
The idea of stopping work as a result of no childcare is just shocking.- Dr Eli Cowling
She said fellow doctors were "mortified" at the idea she would have to step away from work if she couldn't get childcare. "I don't have the luxury of my family being local," she said. "The idea of stopping work as a result of no childcare is just shocking.
"And the number of people I see on a daily basis as patients who are skilled workers who can't return to the workforce because there's no childcare spots - so we're talking teachers, nurses, doctors at my work who can't increase their hours because there's not enough childcare.
"That's just a few industries but across the board there's this huge skills shortage including childcare workers which is where a lot of the issue comes from in that there's not enough childcare workers in the industry at the minute to service the demands of the city."
Mr Tehan said there was a strong demand for more early childhood workers. "We need a shout out for anyone who has qualifications in the early childhood education teaching fraternity who is thinking about going back to work, to look at working in the early childhood area," he said.
"There are currently about 300 people either waiting for spaces or more hours in the early childhood area in Warrnambool.
"If we can get more people working we can deal with demand."
Mr Tehan said the biggest issue was the shortage of workers rather than a shortage of space to take more children.
He said it seemed like there were some new centres already approved but they haven't invested yet.
"The assumption is that might be because of access to workforce," he said.
Mr Tehan said the council had a working group which it had set up which met once a month which he intended to attend.
"I'm looking forward to attending one of their meetings over the next few months and also have encouraged those people who have approached me to also sit down with the council so we can look at strategies to look at getting these workforce shortages addressed," he said.
Mr Tehan said the working group would look at using the Designated Area Migration Agreement to attract staff. "It might be that we need to encourage early childhood workers to come in from overseas under the DAMA and other type of strategies," he said.
But Mr Tehan said they would first like to tap into the existing pool before looking at other alternatives to start filling some of those shortages.
"This is an issue that is not only childhood education, but other areas as well that it's a problem," he said.
Corangamite Shire Council is also grappling with a shortage and has allocated $120,000 in its 2022-23 draft budget for an early years training program to help fill the gap.
The council's family and children's services team has appointed seven young local residents to this program already and are completing either a Certificate III in Early Education and Care or a Diploma of Early Education and Care.
"This program retains young people within Corangamite Shire and provides them with opportunities to apply the theory they are learning to the real-world experience of working in an early childhood education setting," the council said.
Plans for two new childcare centres are on the drawing board with one on Verdon Street due to open early in 2023 and another yet-to-be-approved project set to open the following year.
Work on the Verdon Street childcare centre is set to start in October.
DNAA Group in November last year applied to build a 150-place childcare centre on the corner of Dales and Aberline roads in Warrnambool's burgeoning north-east but it has yet received council approval.
It is set to be tabled at the July or August meeting for councillors to decide on.
A DNAA Group spokesperson said the new centre would employ up to 40 staff at the site, and he hoped it would attract employees. "We're very keen to get started," he said. "We're working very hard to open the centre in early 2024."
With the build expected to take at least 12 months, he said if it was completed earlier it would open sooner in September/October next year but that was dependent on approvals and the building project.
The application for the childcare centre also includes plans for 16 two-bedrooom townhouses next door.
The city council said the capacity of the council's three childcare centres was based around current staffing availability.
"Facilities have the space to take on more families but are unable to do so because of staff shortages," the council said. "Council has sought to employ additional qualified staff with little success over the past 12 months.
"We are urgently seeking staff so we can cater for more families, we are looking to the community to assist."
The council said the crisis was not unique to Warrnambool with areas across the state and nationally experiencing similar challenges.
"Staffing issues are being compounded - along with most businesses due to COVID and other health-related issues and fatigue," the council said.
"Across council's three venues which offer childcare, there is a combined waiting list of over 300 children. This comprises families wanting part-time, full-time or outside business hours."
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