The Criticality of Staff Retention in Early Childhood Education

In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we welcome back Anthony (Tony) D’Agostino, CEO of Inspire Care 360 to discuss the epidemic of hiring and retaining quality staff at child care centers and how owners and directors can invest in their people to keep their staff happy and attract quality educators.

Tony dives into the timely topic of how hiring and retaining early childhood educators right now is a huge pain point for child care directors and owners and has been highlighted by the pandemic. Tony mentions that there is a lack of consistency when it comes to things like wages with early childhood educators and this is driving the demand for educators further. If an individual is applying for a role as an infant teacher, they may come across 4 different ads online that have 4 different salaries. The salaries offered are also directly correlated to the pricing of the child care spots for families- it’s a balancing act between child care costs and what you can pay staff while making sure you’re making money as a child care provider.

What can you do as a director, to make sure that people see that early childhood education is a career opportunity? There are career ladders, opportunities for growth and development beyond wages, promotions, events rather than it being a way-point of I’m taking on this job until I move on to what I eventually want to do.

Anthony D’Agostino. The Preschool Podcast

Tony suggests that rather directors and owners can no longer continue the same process of hiring staff, giving them a quick tour of the facility and then telling them to go into the room they were assigned. Rather we need to actually onboard a staff member, have them understand your families, the children, the community, and your company culture. Tony says this part is often overlooked but is an absolutely critical piece to retaining staff at your center. 

Tony also suggests that directors and owners can create a hierarchy system to allow their staff members to work to achieve certain levels and be rewarded for their performance. This system should align with your core values as a company and your goals and objectives as a company.

As a director or owner, when you invest in your staff members, trust them and allow them to grow, you’ll be on the right path to keeping quality staff members in your center. As a professional development resource, Tony recommends reading Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High for early childhood leaders. 

Episode 275- Transcripts-

Tony D’AGOSTINO:

That’s where we believe that if you have a consistent structure that allows for ongoing communication, but ongoing engagement that they’re participating in the success of the organization and they personally get to get rewarded for it along the way. We’ve seen in the past, from everything that we’ve done from our alpha testing and our initial beta testing, that it’s all working.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Tony, welcome back to the Preschool Podcast!

D’AGOSTINO:

Thank you very much, Ron. I’m so glad to be back. Thank you for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Always a pleasure to have on the show with us Tony D’Agostino. He’s the founder and CEO of Inspire Care 360. [We] have had the pleasure of knowing Tony for a few years now, both working in early-childhood education, trying to support childcare programs everywhere and a great fellow.

And [we are] interested to talk to you today, Tony, about relationships within the childcare program, with staff, with employees and the importance of that. Before we get there, for those of you who don’t know Tony, let’s hear a little bit about you and kind of what has brought you to start Inspire Care 360 and what you’re doing there.

D’AGOSTINO:

Thank you so much, Ron, I really appreciate it. And yeah, it’s been a pleasure to know you over the past couple of years, too, from when we originally met and the opportunity to meet you actually at your office, that one occasion when I was up in the TO [Toronto, Ontario, Canada]. So, we will hopefully have that happen again.

So, my background, unfortunately, is going to add up a number of years. But I started in that corporate America background. And the kind of companies I eventually started working for were companies that really focused on the human capital side of the business. And I danced between being in corporate America and owning my own.

So, I owned a staffing company in Orlando. I eventually started www.OrlandoJobs.com back in the 90s. So, I really had a good sense about recruiting staff between these staffing companies. I had also spent some time working with an executive coaching outplacement company, Drake Beam Morin, which would really allow me to understand about the coaching elements.

Then I moved over to a few companies that rolled up to Pearson Education and then eventually Ernst and Young, where I really focused on adult learning and the whole soup-to-nuts from the beginning of connecting with what staff and teams needed to learn, from soft skills to technical skills and everything in between from doing studies from gap analysis to time-motion studies, all the way through to building out curriculum and the like.

And then eventually, a lot of times I moved companies. But that wasn’t because I was leaving them, they were just being acquired by someone else. And eventually, our division was acquired by another large company that had me work around benefits. I spent a lot of time around employee benefits. And that company was bought consultants, which was eventually acquired by Xerox Corporation.

And I became the head of global employee engagement. So, it was really about not for internal with Xerox and how to engage our staff, but actually, believe it or not, there was a consulting practice within Xerox that we worked with organizations about how to truly engage their staff.

And so after I wanted to get off the road and watch my kids grow up, I decided to leave the dance between the corporate and having a few of my companies from the past. And I decided to look back to where I am in western New York right now as to what could I get grounded with. And I looked at a whole bunch of different companies.

And you won’t believe the story but I found the opportunity for childcare – and it was actually daycare, at the time. And my real “A-ha!” was, is that I can focus on these being learning and development centers. And so that’s why I ended up buying six schools over 10 years ago, eventually operationalizing them, selling one of them off and consolidating them. So, now I have several of these schools that are working very efficient.

And about five years ago, I thought that when I came into the industry, there really didn’t seem to be a back office solution where everybody from the HR [human resources] to the training and the development side, from the reputation and brand, as well as sort of operationalizing your operations, there really was not underneath one umbrella a group who could really help you out with those areas, sort of like what a franchisor is to a franchisee.

Most of the marketplace – 95% of it – is independently owned and operated in small, non-profits and what have you. But they don’t have a lot of that business background and that competency in those areas, but amazingly great competence in the area of education of children.

So, the combination of the background that I’ve had, along with some really strong team members, we’ve developed Inspire Care 360 several years ago. We are now across 28 states in the US, as well as making a foray into Canada. And we have been providing services underneath a membership that offer onboarding training and a comprehensive learning management platform under our Inspire University.

We have health care benefits now that are really second-to-none, specific to the childcare industry that are very affordable and flexible. We HR services, professional development and that’s all under our “engage” piece of our umbrella.

Underneath our “growth” side of it, Ron, is the idea of, we help companies assess what’s their brand really mean to their staff, to their families and to their community and help them develop a roadmap to get the very biggest, best brand for themselves that they’re seeking and help them get there.

We do support on some marketing initiatives, anywhere from websites to ads and everything in between but help out companies with really building their brand to growing their reputation and making sure they have the right star ratings across the board for all of these sites directly with Google or Facebook or www.Care.com, whoever. And then protecting with PR [public relations] crisis support.

We have a national buy group that gives buying power like you have thousands of locations they can participate in. We’ve negotiated that nationally for food, office, school supplies, software services, capital goods. And in addition to financial expertize and coaching, we sort of have a bunch of back office things, Ron.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. So, that background makes a lot of sense for what we’re talking about today with relationships with staff. You mentioned you’d spent time doing that at Xerox, in terms of how you engage staff. And you also have the perspective of having operated childcare centers yourself. So, a great background for what you do.

Before we dive into that topic, though, maybe you can just touch on quickly something that is very top of mind for most childcare programs now, which is finding and retaining staff in the first place. A big issue right now. We’re seeing it right up into the national media. How big of an issue is this?

D’AGOSTINO:

Yeah, two weeks ago, I was talking to a New York Times reporter; last week I was talking to a USA Today reporter. We’re finally getting the attention in our ECE [early-childhood education] childcare space about the crisis that’s going on.

I would say from talking to the majority of our members who are all childcare owners of single or multi-locations that they’re all feeling the pain like I’m sure many of the people in the audience are feeling the pain, if the running and operating their own schools.

Part of the issue of the crisis is that we used to be able to find a lot of staff. However, in the industry and even in your reports that you annually do, from your research and studies, Ron, you show that turnover is anywhere from 30 to 40%. And we quote the HiMama surveys oftentimes in saying this is one of the data’s where you have done your background work and your research. And that’s very accurate, 30 to 40%.

I was on with one of our prospective members who has about 50 locations. And their turnover is over 60% right now. And that’s crazy, when you think about it. Think of the number of W-2s [wage and tax statement forms] that are just happening and how much training, how much lost.

The value of one employee leaving your organization on average is $10,000. And most people go, “I don’t think we spend $10,000 on a person.” But you actually do. You spend a tremendous amount to onboard, to recruit, hire, onboard them, to get them up to speed, spending all the investment in time and energy for them, as well as the relationships they create with the families and the other staff members.

So, when that staff member leaves, not only is that all that sunk in cost into that individual’s walking out the door, but you have the possibility of losing those relationships with that family or other staff members who start getting a little bit disenfranchized with your school because like, “Why are people leaving? Why did that person just leave abruptly like that? Maybe I should consider leaving.”

So, what we notice is that recruiting is challenging. But one of the areas that is super important is turnover and stemming turnover for retention. We’ve been focusing a tremendous amount on it, Ron. And our area of focus has been that across the nation, most childcares have taken an approach of almost a wage war.

And that is that you go on to Indeed [online job market board] and you look at… like, if you post [a job position] for an infant teacher… I just pulled this up, gosh, about a week-and-a-half ago because I was speaking at a conference. And I just said, “Infant teacher” in western New York, here.

And what popped up was someone at 14 to 15 dollars an hour for one ad. The next ad was $15; another one was $17; one was $20; one was $24 an hour. Crazy. That’s just… it would be great to offer those wages to staff members. But the challenge, as we all know, is we have to then dramatically increase our prices to our families.

So, there is a way to look at how do you recruit with not only wages, but how do you use a mixture of benefits and rewards that you can also do but really focus on the culture of your business to retain staff? Because the less people you have walking out the door, the less you have to do that heavy duty recruiting.

So, we really have been having a lot of conversations of, “What can you do to make sure that people see that this ECE is a career opportunity?” There are career ladders here; there is reward opportunity for growing yourself and developing yourself beyond wages, benefits, other rewards, promotions, opportunities, events to go to; and having actually a career in this industry, as to it being a waypoint of, “Hey, I’m just taking on this job until I can go to eventually what I want to do.”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that makes a ton of sense, in terms of viewing it sort of less transactionally and more as a career from the perspective of the early-childhood educator and as a real investment for someone you want to retain as the childcare program.

Tell us a little bit more. You mentioned words like “thinking about this as a career”, “rewards”, all these other aspects of the role, which is beyond just showing up in the morning and doing your job and leaving at the end of the day, sort of mentality. Tell us a little bit more about what you’ve worked with other childcare programs, in terms of thinking about things a little bit differently in this regard.

D’AGOSTINO:

So, what we’re doing right now, we’re in the process that we’ve been beta testing an approach. We alpha testing, which means that we used it within our own schools. We have and operate still our own schools, like I sort of mentioned earlier, in addition to Inspire Care 360. But now we’re going to a number of our existing members who are beta testers. And we’re putting in a program that is really functioning and sort of changing the model of how we engage with staff, how we really create a relationship with them, or I call a “total reward relationship”.

The thought process is, oftentimes how we treat staff today is, we offer them a wage, we bring them on board. They might get a brief orientation. They oftentimes have to rush into a room because we have to keep ratio. And we’ll be lucky if they get all of their foundational training done for the state license requirements or the province license requirements that there are out there.

That is something that doesn’t feel overly engaging or embraced by a staff member coming on board. They’re new, oftentimes, to the childcare space. Or if they’ve been there before, they have a history with someone else and they don’t have an understanding of your culture.

So, what happens is, they’re brought in and they’re really not connected to your business, your childcare business or your staff or your families. And we’re basically hoping that they’re going to survive. And I’m a big believer, my team knows I see all the time. I think it’s named after Rick Page book that’s out there, Hope Is Not A Strategy [The 6 Keys To Winning The Complex Sale].

I do not believe in hoping that the engagement of your staff, the communication with your staff and the wellbeing of your team members will hopefully work out for you. I believe that your staff is your secret sauce to success. And I don’t say that because I’m looking for people to go out there and to overly invest in their staff or just doubt on them.

As much as it is that if we have a very strong, well-set expectation staff that gets rewarded properly aligned to performance, you are going to find returns on that investment with that staff. But not only the returns from them from a performance point of view, but you’ll get from a communication, from growth and where they’re helping you drive your schools.

So, one other program that we’ve been developing and working with is really creating a hierarchy, a mastery level one-through-five. And at every level a staff member would actually get a badge for their attainment of different goals and objectives. But we look across the board at what is important for your schools from a competency standpoint, from a compliance, from a code of conduct, from your core values and the curriculum that you need. Those are really those five C’s that are really important to every school. And that allows you to run your programs, those different elements.

So, if they come in, they come in at a table stakes level of, like, a mastery level one. And what they’re doing is basically saying, “Yup, we’re going to pay you this wage and some benefits and what have you coming up. And if you achieve that, that’s basically what we call compulsory. For level one and level two, you’ve got to achieve a certain amount of tasks from the kind of training you do in the experience to prove that you actually can run a program in a room.”

But then what we do is, we look at the program becoming voluntary. And that program, the reason because we’re having it become voluntary is because we’re changing the mindset that we’re trying to drag staff through the organization of where they should be and sort of empowering our staff to say, “Hey, listen, this is up to you at this point.”

In a way, what we’re doing is, we’re game-ifying it, too. So, what we’re saying is, “You have an opportunity now to continue your learning, to continue your developing. And as you continue to learn and develop it and apply to the business, your performance is going to increase. And for that reason, as you get to the next mastery level or the next batch level, you will then have an opportunity to have more wages, additional PTO [personal time off] time, additional rewards or benefits coming out of a pool.”

Now, they have a chance because they’re doing this basically as their desire to move their self up so they can increase their wages, they can increase their rewards. But the only way they’re really doing that is that they’re increasing their performance, which increases the value of the school.

But what this is doing is this is truly engaging our staff on an ongoing, day-to-day level. So, instead of it, Ron, doing something where you bring someone on board, put them [through] orientation, throw them in a room and say, “Hey, in six months, we’ll talk about a performance review,” this is really giving them a roadmap from day number one of what they need to do and then have an automated way of helping them manage to make sure that they check all the different boxes along the way. And it gives them an opportunity to grow their career to different levels in your organization with you.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I love that, the clear expectations and the empowerment that comes with that is huge. And I’ve seen in my own personal career as well, just that is the key is that the individual needs to own their progression and their decisions, right? That’s so fundamental at the end of the day. But then your responsibility, I think, as the leader or as management, the owner of the center, whatever your role is, is to provide them with the opportunity and the framework or structure to empower them to be able to do it.

D’AGOSTINO:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s been the challenge that I’ve seen and experienced over the past 10 years is, us as owner operators, whether we are an owner operator of one location, whether we have several, whether we’re part of a franchise or we’re franchisor or we’re part of a corporate entity, we’re running so busy all day long. As they say proverbially, it’s difficult to change the wheels on the bus because you’re going so fast down the road.

The thought process here is, how do you create a model that helps you get that framework, like you said? Provide the guidelines, provide the structure, but then empower your teammates to say, “Hey, this is not going to be overly subjective here. We really shouldn’t be able to hear that, Oh, the director didn’t like me, so she’s not giving me a promotion.”

No, here is like, if you’ve done the work, you are going to get additional wages. You’re going to be availed now to promotions. You will be able to be availed to additional benefit options. So, it’d be up to you and you get to write your own ticket. And it only helps the schools – there’s no way that it doesn’t. The performance just increases.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and it’s really human nature, too, to want clarity. I think people struggle and ambiguity. And when things are really subjective and you don’t know why decisions are being made, it’s a struggle for anybody, which again, I just think is human nature. So, this certainly makes a lot of sense, having that clarity.

D’AGOSTINO:

Yeah, and the way we look at is, I’ve noticed through my years of employee engagement, getting back to really sort of the topic of where you started, too. Even though we think we communicate a lot to our staff, sometimes it’s not the kind of communication that they need as well as what we need. And saying that from an employee engagement standpoint means that a lot of times we push what we expect our staff to need. We push to them. And they come to us only in time of either crisis or they need to have requirements to be met.

Quite often that allows a lot of gaps in the relationship between you and the staff to be created. And those gaps become cavernous and they become these chasms that eventually allow staff members to feel like there’s not a connection. And there’s no reason for them to really stay part of your culture for them to move on.

Strangely enough, they can start relatively small but they can slowly build up. So, how do you manage through that? That’s where we believe that if you have a consistent structure that allows for ongoing communication but ongoing engagement that they’re participating in the success of the organization and they personally get to get rewarded for it along the way. We’ve seen in the past from everything that we’ve done from our alpha testing and our initial beta testing that it’s all working.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, powerful stuff, absolutely, which goes right into the core of the culture of the childcare program. And then again, that ability to retain your people, which is so important right now in this environment. Thanks for sharing some of those tips and practices, Tony.

Before we wrap up, a couple of things: one is, we’re also big on professional development on the Preschool Podcast. Any recommendations you might have for our listeners in terms of a helpful podcast, webinar, a book, TED talk, anything that you think would be cool for our audience to check out?

D’AGOSTINO:

There’s been a few out there. There’s a number of webinars out there. We actually do our webinars on a regular basis, almost two to a month. I haven’t honestly read a book in about a year and a half, thereabout. And that’s horrible. But my eyes are getting really bad, Ron. And so I’m starting to do more books on tape.

So, I think the most recent one that I listened to was Crucial Communications [Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, by Grenny, Switzler, Patterson and McMillan], a fantastic book. It is something that I actually do book clubs. And the other one that I did actually a book club with my staff because… when I say I do a book club with them is, Getting To Why by Simon Sinek. We would actually have the whole team be given the book. And then we get together once a week and we go around and talk about what do we think, each week as a chapter. And we go through that chapter.

Getting To Why, I do think that that is a very powerful book for us in the sense of, “Why are you in it? What are you doing this for?” Not the How, not the, “I’m getting up every day just because I need a paycheck,” but, “Why? What is your sort of goal and objective?” And being able to talk to your staff around that, I think, has been very powerful. So, I think I have to re-up up my Audible [online audio-book service] account, though, at this point.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, once you go the audio route, it’s hard to go back to the reading route, isn’t it? But [Getting To] Why by Simon Sinek is a great way to end the conversation today because that’s really coming full circle with thinking about the Why in the bigger picture in terms of your team and your people versus the transactional where-we-started, “If the competitor’s posting $14 an hour, we’re going to post $15 an hour.” And thinking about it more of investing, investing in our people and in the future. And that being a key part of the developmental outcomes for the children in the programs.

D’AGOSTINO:

Absolutely, understanding where your values are. And are you connected with your staff members as to, do their values meet with yours?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Absolutely. And lastly, for folks who are listening today and they might want to get in touch with you, Tony, or someone from your team, learn more about what you’re doing at Inspire Care 360, where can they go to get more information?

D’AGOSTINO:

Of course, well, thank you very much. We’re on the web, obviously: www.InspireCare360.com. There’s a lot of information there. If you look under the “What You Get”, you’re going to be probably overwhelmed with the amount of stuff we actually can do. We don’t want to overwhelm you but we sometimes do that. And you can directly reach us from there.

You can always reach out to me, I’m [at] Tony@InspireCare360.com. And I’m willing to pretty much have a conversation with anybody. So, I don’t mind giving out my email address for that. And we’d love to hear from anybody, whether we can help them, whether they have ideas or whether we can… and it doesn’t have to be because they’re joining us for a membership. But if we just help you out any way, just let us know.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. [We] appreciate the transparency and openness. And it sounds like you’ve got some great programs and resources going there that are rooted in some real, real experience. So, thanks for sharing that with us. And as always, Tony, great to have you on the Preschool Podcast and I hope we’ll cross paths again soon!

D’AGOSTINO:

Thank you so much, Ron. I greatly appreciate it.

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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