BOSTON (SHNS) – As businesses welcome employees back to the office and the long-term unemployed face added pressure to find jobs, Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said Tuesday that hiring is the biggest limitation to expanding the capacity of the state’s child care system.

“The workforce crisis is more severe than we thought,” said Aigner-Treworgy, who presented a strategy to boost recruitment in the field to the Board of Early Education and Care.

Aigner-Treworgy said that based on applications for American Rescue Plan Act grants being administered by her department the early education workforce is at about 85 percent of EEC’s early “conservative” estimates.

The shortages of workers in industries throughout the economy has made recruitment even more challenging, Aigner-Treworgy said. Applicants often turn down jobs for higher-paying opportunities in other fields, and child care providers, she said, have shown “incredible hesitation” in investing short-term ARPA grants in employee compensation.

Three-quarters of directors have been trying to hire for six months to a year, according to the department, and less than 25 percent of applicants reviewed for open positions are qualified.

“This is a completely bigger issue across the country right now. Recruiting individuals into care work at all is very difficult,” Aigner-Treworgy said.

The Board of Early Education and Care at an emergency meeting in August gave the commissioner the authority to relax some of the early education teacher credentialing policies to increase the pipeline of people willing to take jobs in daycare and after-school programs.

Aigner-Treworgy came back to the board on Tuesday to present on some of the strategies being pursued, many of which are still in development.

To make hiring easier, the Department of Early Education and Care said it will look to make it simpler for job applicants to demonstrate competency for a job as an EEC teacher, including reciprocity with the state’s licensing process for K-12 teachers and the consideration of out of state credentials and non-traditional coursework.

The department also plans to give more discretion to child care providers to determine whether applicants meet hiring qualifications set by the state, rather than waiting for EEC to verify. EEC is working to build out a professional registry where the qualifications of applicants can be easily uploaded, verified and tracked.

Aigner-Treworgy said the new policies, which will be published in the next couple of weeks for providers to review, will allow them to “assess those soft skills of teaching and care in these early years and grades and not be so rigid on what coursework or path someone took.”

“How do we qualify people to be unsupervised with children but also make sure those people have enough experience or enough preparation that being unsupervised with 10 children doesn’t become completely overwhelming is some of the balance we’re trying to face here,” she said.

Unlike the public school system, both the commissioner and members of the board said the early education and care industry presents unique challenges given the fact that providers are private employers.

Compensation remains a major barrier to entry into the profession, Aigner-Treworgy said, with as many as 20 percent of educators in the field nationwide earning less than the federal poverty level and many working for salaries 30 percent less than a public pre-school teacher.

The commissioner said she would have more to say in October about how EEC hopes to prioritize funding to address compensation and benefits.

Board member Sheila Balboni said she often hears from providers that the issue of child care vouchers, or discounted tuition for staff, comes up with prospective employees.

Aigner-Treworgy said the department has tried to relax some of the regulations that prevented providers from subsidizing tuition for teachers, but she said one challenge that remains is that federal vouchers cannot be used to offset tuition for staff and providers can’t afford to give up a full-tuition seat in their program.

“It would be ideal if we’re able to expand our subsidy system in a way that could offer far more families access to tuition support but one of the challenges we have is hitting up against that federal eligibility criteria,” SAT said.

The department’s strategy to improve the pipeline of workers in the early education and care field also involves working with the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and other state career training programs to do a better job matching prospective employees with jobs in the industry, and improving access to higher education.

The commissioner reported a disconnect between higher education and educators and administrators seeking out coursework.

While community colleges and other institutions often report high demand for coursework in the field, she said, courses themselves often have empty seats and prospective students complain about not being able to access the courses they need.

With many higher education institutions offering more coursework online, Aigner-Treworgy said EEC hopes to launch a portal that will enable students looking to enter the profession or pursue professional development to be matched easily with an institution offering the coursework in the language and at a time and location convenient to the student.

A fall effort to support improved access to higher education and the winter launch of the professional registry are all building to the development of an EEC credential.

Aigner-Treworgy said the credential, when it launches in the summer of 2022, will offer early education and care professionals a clear pathway to qualification and career advancement.