25th April 2019

The early years workforce: A comparison with retail workers

High quality early years education can have a considerable impact on a child’s life chances. Research also shows that a stable, highly-skilled, childcare workforce is crucial to improving child outcomes.

Despite this, the childcare sector faces great uncertainty over recruitment and retention, with growing reports of workers switching to the retail sector, in order to secure more favourable working conditions. 

New research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) examines this phenomenon by comparing pay, working conditions, demographics and qualifications of workers in the childcare and retail sectors in England.

The analysis draws on data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which collects detailed information on the UK labour market from 100,000 individuals on a quarterly basis.

You can read the full report here.

Key findings

Childcare pay vs. retail pay: workers face growing incentives to leave the sector

  • Childcare worker pay is undergoing a sharp real terms decline: on current trends, it may be overtaken by retail worker pay by 2021. Since 2013, childcare real wages have fallen from £8.59 to £8.19 per hour, whilst retail wages have increased in real terms from £7.34 to £7.75.
  • Some childcare workers are already paid less than those in retail, even when they have the same qualifications. The average childcare worker with a Level 2 vocational qualification now earns £0.22 less per hour than a retail worker with a Level 2 qualification.
  • Falling real wages could worsen the current retention and recruitment overlook in the sector, with low pay one of the main drivers for childcare workers leaving the sector. Around one in four of former childcare workers stated ‘unsatisfactory pay’ as the main reason for leaving the sector, compared to one in six retail workers.


Other factors driving childcare workers towards alternative occupations

  • Childcare workers are unlikely to face any qualification entry barriers when switching to the retail sector. Combined with the increasing likelihood of higher retail pay, this is likely to facilitate childcare workers moving into retail jobs.
  • Employment in the retail sector is flexible, with a high proportion of work temporary. This means that new retail positions are often available, presenting employment opportunities for childcare workers. 


Growing workforce instability has serious implications for the future of childcare provision

  • With competing sectors offering similar pay, and lower entry requirements, the number of workers in the childcare sector may continue to fall in the future, as the number of leavers exceeds the number of joiners.
  • If the retention and recruitment outlook for the childcare sector becomes less favourable, this will have serious implications for access to and quality of childcare: optimum staff to child ratios may not be met, with providers restricting the number of childcare places available to parents.
  • Continuing falling real wages also are likely to result in fewer workers with higher qualifications in the sector. The proportion of well-qualified staff workers with ‘Early Years Educator’ status (Level 3 qualification) has already been erratic in recent years, standing at 65.9 percent in 2013, 73 per cent in 2016, and 68.3 per cent in 2018.