Yesterday’s spring statement offered little relief to working parents struggling with childcare costs, despite calls for more investment in the sector to boost gender equality. Nursery chain Bright Horizons has just announced a £10million investment in recruitment, retention and training, and HR director Janine Leightley told Personnel Today why that’s important.
In December 2021, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published thought-provoking research. That while a sharp increase in the number of female graduates over the past 25 years has led to a narrowing of the gender pay gap, women are still less likely to be in paid employment than men and more likely to work fewer hours per week. Even in households where women earned the most, they were more likely to do the bulk of childcare due to “gender norms”, the think tank said.
One of his recommendations was that improving policies and investments in childcare, alongside standardizing equal paid leave for both parents, would help overcome this barrier. Even the Royal Foundation Center for Early Childhood, run by the Duchess of Cambridge, has called for more investment in UK childcare infrastructure, saying ‘early years are one of the best investments what we can do for long-term health, well-being and happiness. Of our society “.
But despite overwhelming evidence of its value, yesterday’s spring statement failed to address the rising cost of childcare and investment in the sector to attract and retain staff.
As Human Resources Director of the UK’s second largest chain of nurseries, Bright Horizons, Janine Leightley knows these challenges all too well. The company has more than 7,500 employees in 300 nurseries and preschools, but faces a tight market when it comes to hiring early years practitioners – a situation which has been exacerbated by both the Covid pandemic and Brexit.
This year, Bright Horizons will invest £10million in salaries, benefits and training for its current and future workforce, she explains. “We wanted to change the way people think about early childhood – our practitioners do some of the most important work there is,” she says. “Caring for and teaching children at this age has lifelong implications, so we need to invest in them.”
Wages in London-based nurseries will be above the London living wage of £11.05 (as recommended by the Living Wage Foundation), and the company will scrap the lower age-linked national minimum wage so that all staff receives at least the national living wage for 23 years and over. According to job site Indeed, the average salary for an early years practitioner is around £20,600, which equates to an hourly rate of £9.90, so that’s competitive.
Offering a higher salary isn’t just about securing top talent, Leightley insists. It is also about “raising the status” of workers in the child care profession. “We want to reinforce the vital role they play in the wider economy – they provide an important service to employers by helping people have fulfilling and productive careers,” she adds.
Bright Horizons’ investment includes a commitment to hire 700 apprentices this year, as well as a new graduate program. Apprenticeships will be open to existing workers who wish to gain a qualification as well as new recruits, and the company has become a member of the 5% Club, a network of employers who aspire to reach 5% of their workforce by ‘earning as they learn the positions. Apprentices are given a defined career path so they can see the skills they need to transition from role to role.
We help employers identify care needs for their employers, so it is important that our own workers have access to the same. – Janine Leightley, Bright Horizons
Graduates spend their first year working in incubators as practitioners and after that they are more exposed and experienced in leadership responsibilities, says Leightley. The company has partnered with a number of universities to help them develop their early childhood education programs, but also to offer students internships as part of their degree.
Bright Horizons also recognizes the importance of well-being in keeping staff engaged throughout this career journey. “We help employers identify care needs for their employees, so it’s important that our own workers have access to the same care,” she says. The company’s approach focuses on emotional, physical and financial well-being.
“Each year, we conduct a benefits survey where we ask our colleagues what they would like,” says Leightley. “We are now focusing more on preventative tactics that get to the root cause of problems. So with finance, we are offering good discounts for childcare, early access to salaries and financial advice, for example. example.”
And while flexible working is not available to all on-site employees in the same way as we expect office workers, they do have the option of signing up for the Brightflex in-house bank staff ‘agency’. business. “It’s more complex when we have practitioners in facilities, but if someone wants to work more flexibly, they can register with the bank and work at times that suit them, or in another location if his partner works outside,” she adds.
Employee voice and empathetic management also play a vital role in keeping workers engaged. The company runs a forum called Be Heard, where representatives from across the organization meet regularly and share employee suggestions with the management team. Support for managers is scaffolded, so they have tools to help their teams, but know when to escalate or step back. “We want to help managers support the well-being of their teams, by supporting them to understand the role they can play in it, but also by setting clear limits to their involvement,” explains Leightley.
It will be frustrating for working parents that Chancellor Rishi Sunak did not mention childcare once in yesterday’s spring statement, but refreshing to know that at least employers in the sector are ready to invest in its crucial role.
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