Faced with severe talent shortages in its sector, this early education and childcare organisation augmented its learning and development program to build a pipeline of capable, driven and purposeful talent.
As one of Australia’s largest and fastest-growing early education and childcare providers, Affinity Education has a built-in mindset of continuous learning and development.
“We’re lucky in this sector that a lot of people are in it for the right reasons,” says Linda Carroll, Affinity Education Group’s Chief People Officer.
“They’re doing it because they want to have an impact on young children and help to shape that new generation coming through – it’s very rewarding work. And they’re teaching children, so they’re very open to learning.”
Employing more than 5000 early childhood educators and teachers nationwide, Affinity has long been a champion of accessible professional development for educators.
Over the past few years, as the organisation grappled with a scarcity of talent and management capabilities in the sector, it expanded its learning and development initiatives to enhance its employee value proposition and help create a smooth and sustainable internal talent pipeline.
The organisation’s exceptional initiative to achieve these objectives is what earned its nomination for AHRI’s 2023 Best Learning & Development Strategy Award, which will be announced at a ceremony in Sydney next month.
Learn more about this year’s AHRI Awards here.
Taking action to tackle skills shortages
The past few years have seen the talent landscape in early childhood education and care (ECEC) grow more and more challenging for employers.
Earlier this year, the Australian Childcare Alliance released a report on the impact of the staffing crisis in the sector. Its surveys indicate that the majority of ECEC services are being forced to cap enrolments as they “simply don’t have enough staff” to meet the legal ratio requirements of educators to children.
The shortage of talent in this sector is particularly pronounced in regional Australia; a study conducted last year by the Mitchell Institute found that about 35 per cent of the Australian population live in ‘childcare deserts’ – i.e. regions characterised by an excessive demand for childcare services, with more than three children vying for each available childcare spot.
“Particularly post-COVID, where you’ve got other industries and sectors that have been able to offer hybrid working arrangements, it’s difficult for us to compete because we have ratios to meet and children in our care. So for us, it’s about finding different ways to attract and retain our workforce,” says Carroll.
“Affinity’s key value is to realise the potential of everyone. And that’s something we really live and breathe every day. In the candidate-short market we find ourselves in, we have to spend a lot of time, effort and concentration on developing an internal talent pipeline within our organisation.”
A culture of continuous learning and development
Since 2017, Affinity Education has run an award-winning internal training program called the Affinity Learning Academy, where employees are offered fully-paid and supported accredited training and are assisted in enrolling in traineeships, Certificate III and Diploma qualifications.
Last year, the organisation’s leaders decided to harness the success of the program to enhance its internal leadership talent pipeline.
“We’ve now extended that to include leadership and management qualifications for the centre leaders in our business,” says Carroll.
“A lot of our staff go from the floor, where they might be working as an educator or as a room leader, into an assistant manager or a centre manager role where they’re essentially running a small business without necessarily undertaking any kind of business or leadership training.
“Often the traits that make someone successful in working with children are different to the ones you need as a leader or as a business manager of a centre.”
As part of the program, employees are connected with a development coach who visits their centre regularly for on-the-job training and coaching to help them meet their professional goals.
“Anything we do in terms of learning and development… we try to capture it and make sure it’s available for anyone who might have missed it, or anyone who’s new to the organisation.” – Linda Carroll, Chief People Officer, Affinity Education Group
Recognising the importance of accessibility for non-urban centres, Affinity takes care to ensure that employees in regional areas are given the same amount of face time with the trainers.
The organisation’s culture of continuous learning has contributed to some inspiring success stories among its workforce.
“These are sometimes employees or students who didn’t do that greatly at school, and never thought they’d end up at university,” says Carroll.
“But they gain confidence by going through the VET pathway, and they are able to transition into higher education with a lot more confidence in their knowledge and ability.”
Measures of success
Affinity’s learning and development program is more than a temporary measure to plug skills gaps. Carroll’s team is dedicated to sustaining and expanding the program to safeguard its talent pipeline for the long haul.
“[Our measures of success] are around how many of our management positions we’re filling via internal candidates and promotions, and where we’re sitting is around 70 per cent,” she says. “That’s the most important metric for us, particularly in a growing business.”
In 2022, the total number of internal promotions grew to 871 up from 592 the year prior, or almost 50 per cent. Similar internal promotion data is trending for 2023.
The results of the program were also reflected in improved job satisfaction levels. The company’s most recent annual engagement survey showed 86 per cent of respondents felt part of Affinity and its values, 85 per cent indicated they were positive promoters of the organisation and 81 per cent said they would rather work for Affinity than any other childcare operator.
“We’re recognising their personal values and how they align with the organisation’s values, and then tapping into them to motivate [employees] to progress and succeed within the organisation, which then makes them feel part of something bigger,” says Carroll.
Affinity’s talent pool is fast-growing, with more than 1500 new employees and 70 individual centres added to its portfolio in the past two years. As a result, another key indicator of success was the sustainability and consistency of the program across its wide remit.
“Any initiative that we undertake, we have to have in the back of our mind whether or not it is scalable,” she says.
“It’s been very important for us to empower the staff in our services, because we can’t just keep adding hundreds of people to a head office and sending them out to do the work in the centres.”
To ensure the program is accessible to all employees, Affinity also runs the Affinity Learning Hub, an online platform home to more than 100 mandatory and optional eLearning courses.
“Anything we do in terms of learning and development, wherever possible, we try to capture it and make sure that it’s available for anyone who might have missed it, or anyone who’s new to the organisation. That’s one way we can scale up and still deliver the same message and the content,” says Carroll.
The organisation’s commitment to continuous learning sets a benchmark for the ECEC sector, showcasing the positive impact of investing in the development of the workforce. The HR team at Affinity is proud to have its achievements recognised with an AHRI Award nomination.
“It’s some great recognition for everyone who’s been involved in developing the initiatives we have in place. It’s not just one person – it’s a whole team of people [involved], and it’s something we’ve been working towards for years.”
Don’t miss your chance to attend this year’s AHRI Awards celebration, hosted in Sydney. Reconnect with your HR peers and celebrate the hard work that has gone into helping organisations to be prepared for new ways of working. Register now.