Jen Dalitz
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Little Wins

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70,000 mums want to work but can’t access childcare: how is this impacting your business?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

News out today says that 70,000 Australian mums are locked out of the workforce solely because they cannot get affordable childcare.  Boy this makes me cranky. And it’s not just because I was up half the night showering and changing Master Almost-3 who’s had a recurring gastro for 3 weeks now.  This issue makes me crazy; partly because of the impact it’s having on the career advancement, life choices and personal power of women; but it’s also ludicrous to consider here is a talent pool that wants to work and contribute to the productivity of our nation and its employers, but can’t get over the structural barriers to do so.

Now before you say write this off as a “mummy track” issue... consider the impact it’s having on your business.

The ABS says a further 13 per cent of mothers were either unavailable for work or unable to work more hours because there were no childcare places where they lived.

And yet just last year the Government dropped its plan to build 260 childcare centres – saying figures show there are enough places – and introduced reforms to long day care that will increase the cost of care for pre-school aged kids by up to 15 per cent.

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It’s not just because I’m a mum that I’m passionate about this.  We can’t leave employers in a position where they recruit great women, invest in their development, do the right thing in holding jobs open during parental leave… and then ask them to hope for the best in terms of parents finding a childcare place before they can return to the workplace.

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In my last executive role – long before I’d even considered parenthood – I was responsible for a team of around 200 people and the administration of $9billion in assets and reported to the COO.  You might think that would give you a bit of clout when it comes to the onsite childcare wait list.  Think again. 

When one of my best team leaders was on parental leave, she was desperate to get back to work.  Her family needed the money. She needed the mental stimulation. And we needed her!  But she had no relatives in Australia to help her and she couldn’t find quality, affordable care. 

My star performer was on the waitlist at several local childcare centres, near her home and our offices; and when our own on-site centre told her the wait would be over 12 months for a spot, I just figured this couldn’t be true.  I marched down to that centre “to have a word” with the centre Director who promptly showed me the list – and pointed out that there was nothing I could do to change that.  It was more than 12 months before she found the care she needed; and even then it wasn’t the full time cover she – and I – had hoped for.

If you’re an employer you should know that Australia is way behind the leading nations of the world in terms of the kind of support it provides to working parents. And I’ve already written about why the Government was wrong in reducing the support it offers to Australia’s working parents. The lack of childcare reform in this country is flowing directly onto your business, and I'll attempt to explain why.

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Now we all know that not every woman wants to return to work after having kids; but what I do know for sure is that many certainly do.  And they're kept out by the structural barriers they encounter.

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If you were an employer in Norway, Sweden, France or Germany you would know that childcare doesn’t enter in to the return-to-work considerations: all parents have the peace of mind and the right to a guaranteed publicly-funded childcare place.  But that’s simply not the case here.

So if you think it’s hard for workers to find quality, affordable childcare to match their working hours, you don't know the half of it. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 15 per cent of all unemployed women say they want to work but can’t, because they’re unable to access affordable care for their children while they work. 

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And if you want to pay more than just lip service to attracting, developing and retaining women in your business, you need to understand the issues relating to childcare in this country.

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To analyse this further, it’s necessary to split out cost, structure and availability as separate and important issues. 

Cost is important to both parents and employers, because many workers fail to return to the workplace because it’s not financially viable to do so.  Commonwealth Bank research shows 1 in 3 families whose parents have returned to work use paid childcare; and of these 1 in 4 works for no financial gain (despite government assistance).  That is to say, the cost of childcare either exceeds what they earn from returning to work, or is at breakeven.

The Government provides a rebate to offset these costs but it’s capped at 50% rebate to a maximum of $7500 per child per year.  In major capital cities, like Sydney or Melbourne, parents will need to pay around $120 per child per day – so for full time care they’ll have to fund the rest of the gap - or around $24,000 – from after tax dollars – and this is big money for the average worker. 

That’s why many believe parents would be better off – and encouraged back to work – if childcare costs were tax deductible – and why every business must understand the numbers and join the lobby for these reforms.

Structure is an issue because currently the Government childcare rebate is only available to approved carers, which in almost all cases means long daycare centres. While I’m an advocate for long daycare and it forms part of my own childcare mix, this option simply doesn’t work for all families.  Some parents are reticent about leaving their young babies – with their weak immune systems – in daycare centres.  Some – think shiftworkers like nurses and hospitality professionals – just don’t have access to working days that fit in with the structure of long day-care.  Others need to travel overnight for work, and need someone to stay in home during their absence.  Some just prefer in-home care, which offers more flexibility on timing, choice of carer and coverage when children are sick (and can’t attend daycare).  But if you can’t fit in with the long day-care system you’ll (in general) need to forgo any rebate, which makes the cost of pre-school care even higher. This is simply unfair and the first thing we need from Government is an extension of the rebate to all forms of registered care.

This dependence on the long daycare model has a flow on effect to availability too.  President of the Australian Childcare Alliance, Gwynn Bridge, points out that occupancy levels at childcare centres average about 70 per cent – with many centres having vacancies on “less popular” days like Mondays and Fridays. Telling parents to structure their work days accordingly is a fairly blunt instrument: if parents are in a position to actually choose their work days, it can work – but if not, they’re back to square one and the hunt to find available slots on the days they need.

Together these three factors become “too hard” for parents of pre-school age kids to manage and afford.  And so one of the parents steps out of the workforce – most often the women – and over time it becomes harder and harder to make work work.

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But what often goes unnoticed - and what you should know if you’re an employer is that it’s not just the pre-school years that are the problem. I think this is what many employers really struggle with.  What they don’t get is that it’s actually harder for parents and for the workplace when kids reach school age.

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Let’s start with flexibility.  Many employers think that once the kids are at school, life resumes normality for the “model worker”.  But it’s actually harder to get what you need in terms of flexible work arrangements once the kids are at school.  The Fair Work Act gives parents the right to request flexibility, but the catch is that right exists only while kids are of pre-school age.  The Act doesn’t apply to parents of school age kids (except children with a disability) so you’re very much on your own after your kid turns 5.

The flipside of this is until kids are of pre-school age, they’ll be able to access care up to 52 weeks of the year, from as long as 7.30am til 6pm.  When school kicks in, your kids are in class around 39 weeks of the year, from around 8am til 3pm give or take, depending on their age and school system. 

So employers go from having a shorter-than-ideal but certainly workable presence from working parents, to a very different picture when the kids hit school ages. 

And I’m not sure about you, but no place (outside of the school system itself) has ever offered a standard 13 weeks annual leave a year to fit in with school holiday periods, or promoted a 9-til-3 working day as the status quo.

So what to do for the out of school hours care?  Nannies are an option – again if you can afford it, starting at around $20 per hour so you do the numbers…  After school-hours programs are an option if you can find a spot – and they’re rarer than hen’s teeth so good luck with that.  If you’re lucky enough to have family near by it’s a great option.  But otherwise you’ll need to find a job to accommodate it.

This stuff is a big deal. And it’s almost always left to the women to sort out.  Yes I know some of you have good guys at home, or extended families, or nannies or all of the above.  But how many of you can actually outsource the whole head space of childcare?

We all need to be aware of these issues and the sad thing is many bosses will have not even read this far to understand what’s really going on for the parents they employ.  And until employers do understand this, they’ll just be focused on fixing the women.

Fixing structural barriers and in particular childcare is far more important.  And yes it’s tough.  But the current system is outdated and reflects a bygone era that isn’t real any more for many families.

I think it’s time for reform.  For families, for employers, for the future of Australia and Australians.  If you agree, please say so on the petition at www.makecarefair.com.au

Melissa commented on 08-Dec-2011 09:19 AM
This is a great article. Most pieces around this issue don't mention that one parent often returns to work with no financial bonus due to the cost of childcare, and don't explore the school-aged issue. It's terrible that the annual duration of school holidays
is greater than the standard duration of annual leave and carers leave if you combine 2 parents leave.
Anonymous commented on 08-Dec-2011 09:40 AM
Great article Jennifer. I demand from my employer a 4 day per week role working from home and am thankful every day that I work in an industry where this is possible. I have the flexibility to take my children to school and pick them up and do homework,
etc... The con is working a very busy schedule until the early hours of the morning whilst my colleages in Singapore, China, etc.. work the same schedue but have a full-time nanny for an 1/8th of the cost here in Australia. Not surprisingly, the female representation
for these countries is significantly higher compared to Australia.
The SheEO commented on 08-Dec-2011 10:31 AM
Melissa you're right - the school age issue is a big one that I'm only just becoming truly aware of. As a boss, I always knew that school holidays were there - it just never occurred to me that it was SUCH a headache for my people. SOmetimes I wonder why
we need a license to drive a car but not to lead people - things like this are a MUST KNOW & CARE for all bosses.
The SheEO commented on 08-Dec-2011 10:33 AM
Anon: good point re the in home help... it's something I've been struggling with for the last 3 years. It's not just that our Asian neighbours have access to cheap labour - they also have tax incentives to employ house workers. I've been experimenting
with Au Pairs the past few months and I think it's more upside than down... but realise not everyone has that opportunity. That's where we need some guidance from govt.
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