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Helsinki early childhood education struggles with critical staff shortage

Early childhood education has long faced challenges with the availability of workforce especially in cities, where population numbers and consequently the numbers of children in early childhood education have been on a constant rise. The situation became critical in Helsinki during the autumn of 2019. 

“Workforce availability especially in Swedish-language early childhood education is already so challenging that we’re unable to meet all our legal obligations in terms of language rights. In January 2020, we’ll be in a situation in which about half of the families applying for Swedish-language early childhood education must be offered an early childhood education place in a Finnish-language day care centre. The situation complicates the everyday life of families, and we foresee a marked risk that the problem will be expanding,” says Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori

At the moment, the City of Helsinki early childhood education has 233 open positions for early childhood education teachers and 291 open positions for childcare workers in early childhood education. New employees are recruited actively, but the numbers of applicants are alarmingly low.   

The problem with workforce availability has developed into a crisis as a consequence of many different factors working in combination. One of these factors is lack of financing for study places, which has persisted for a long time. The number of early childhood education teachers graduating annually from the University of Helsinki fails to meet the growing demand by a wide margin. The situation with childcare workers has also worsened. 

In addition, the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care, which took effect in 2018, made qualification requirements stricter, so by relative numbers day care centres need more staff with a university degree. In this connection, the Government did not, however, increase study places for early childhood education teachers to meet the need. 

The City of Helsinki has also worsened the workforce shortage with its own decisions, as the City has sought to increase participation in early childhood education. Early childhood education has been free of charge to five-year-olds since last year. Staffing levels have also been higher in Helsinki than those provided by the law. “On one hand, this has been an important policy in terms of employee retention,” Mayor Vapaavuori says. 

The most urgent action under the authority of the Government is needed especially to find solutions in the following questions: 

  1. The City of Helsinki must be granted an authority to organize basic-degree programmes in education, guidance and counselling in order that especially students who already work can find study places near their homes. The Ministry of Education and Culture has not granted such an authority despite repeated applications, which has worsened and extended the workforce shortage.
  2. Different professional groups must be provided with flexible and fast paths to retraining and upgrading their qualifications.
  3. Entry-level study places must be increased both in early childhood education teacher training at the University of Helsinki and in early childhood education childcare training in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Study places must be increased both in Finnish-language and in Swedish-language education.
  4. The Government and large cities must draw up a programme to increase the appeal of the profession. 

In order to grow the appeal of the profession and its own employer status, the City of Helsinki has raised salaries and wages in early childhood education and increased other bonuses within the City’s authority. Opportunities for ongoing training have been increased, and early childhood education teachers at the beginning of their careers can join mentoring. The availability of substitutes has been improved, and recruiting has been made pro-active and is carried out on multiple channels. The City also provides employees of early childhood education with City apartments on long-term leases. In the autumn of 2019, the Early Childhood Education Teachers Union of Finland named Helsinki the early childhood education municipality of the year. 

“The City has completed many activities to solve the situation but failed to manage the problem in a comprehensive manner. We should have been much more successful especially in our promotion of interests with the Government and with education providers as well as in anticipating the consequences of various decisions,” Mayor Vapaavuori says. 

A solution to the staff shortage in early childhood education must now be sought in a more comprehensive manner, and there should be closer cooperation among the City, the Government and universities. Mayor Vapaavuori says, “There is wide agreement in Finland about strengthening the role and significance of early childhood education. However, political decisions don’t become reality automatically. All actors must do their share in the current situation, and it also requires concrete action from the Government, universities and cities to correct the situation. In order to improve the City’s own action and coordination, I have established a separate Task Force in the City organization to solve the acute crisis and to build closer contacts with key partners. The seriousness of the situation entails that no significant quick improvement can be foreseen,” Mayor Vapaavuori says.

The Helsinki Task Force goes to work immediately. The Task Force is chaired by Helsinki City Manager Sami Sarvilinna. The Task Force reports directly to the Mayor.

Photo: Stina Lahtinen.