THE STATE’S CHILD CARE system is operating below capacity due to workforce shortages. But Massachusetts isn’t alone. The shortage of qualified child care workers is a problem nationwide. In recent weeks, USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Business Insider, and Bloomberg have all reported on the issue.

I have worked in early education for nearly 30 years and I’ve never seen such sustained, national attention paid to the child care and early education workforce. Yet the problems we are discussing now are not new. Cultivating and retaining talent in the child care and early education workforce has long been recognized as a serious area of concern. So much so here in Massachusetts that nearly five years ago, state leaders identified child care workforce development as a priority for the sector.

The solutions being discussed today largely revolve around the urgent need for public investment in child care and early education. But money alone will not solve the workforce cultivation and retention problem.

Unlike other professional fields, there are no established pathways to leadership in child care and early education. When solutions are proposed to issues related to child care quality, supply, and access, the voices and expertise of family child care providers and center educators and administrators are often ignored—even though they are the people closest to the problem.

A growing body of research points to the enormous benefits to children and program quality when early educators from all levels of the field have access to relational and entrepreneurial leadership training. Relational leadership recognizes the expertise or authority of each person to exercise leadership to influence change, regardless of formal titles or roles. Entrepreneurial leadership focuses on designing and leading efforts to solve seemingly intractable problems for which there are no existing or predefined solutions.

Early educators who receive such training experience transformative shifts in their mindsets. They redefine leadership from something that is hierarchical to leadership that is highly collaborative, relational, and purpose-driven. They connect their new understanding of leadership with their past and present actions and capabilities. They see themselves as leaders, often for the first time.

What do early educators do with their new leadership skills? They pursue entrepreneurial ventures that increase the supply of quality child care in their communities. They provide expert testimony to lawmakers and share their expertise with media to educate the public about the importance of investing in the field. They experiment with innovations that improve the quality of their programs.

Nationally, this type of leadership training for early educators is rare. Most of the leadership training available is largely focused on developing management skills rather than leading for change and innovation. A 2018 review of these programs described them as “scarce and scattered.” Enrollment is typically limited to those who already hold leadership positions, such as center directors and program administrators, the vast majority of whom are white, with nearly all programs available only in English. This gatekeeping means that most of the Black, African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian educators working in the field who also speak a multitude of languages don’t get access to leadership development opportunities, thus reinforcing racial and linguistic inequities throughout the sector.

Three years ago, Massachusetts implemented a new system of professional learning and leadership development for early educators. Today, relational and entrepreneurial leadership training is available for free to any early educator who wants it—regardless of the position they hold or the type of program they work in. This past spring the first group of participants enrolled in the program, which takes four months to complete.

Among all participants in this first group, the impact of the leadership training was incredibly powerful. “I think we forget that we do have a voice that can carry further than our own classroom,” wrote one participant in a feedback survey, adding that they would “lead for change in a way that gives others a voice, stand for justice when others can’t, and be a mentor and model for positive guidance and change” within the field of early care and education.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the essential contributions of child care to the quality, health, and fabric of our society are obvious to nearly everyone, and Congress is now working on a bill that would invest over $100 billion in child care programs. Here in Massachusetts, our earlier, pre-pandemic investment in the state’s early education workforce may prove to be prescient: Throughout 2022, early educators will be able to enroll in leadership development training programs offered in Cantonese, Mandarin, and Portuguese, in addition to English and Spanish. Soon we will see empowered agents of change working in child care programs from every level of the field throughout the state.

Based on what we have seen from others who have received this training, we can credibly predict that it will have an enormous and positive impact on child care in Massachusetts. As yet another participant in this leadership development program observed: The field of early care and education “is in need of dedicated and passionate leaders” and they can now be found in family child care programs, child care centers, and Head Start and out of school time programs across the state.

Anne Douglass is a professor of early care and education at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation, which is administering leadership development training programs for the state’s early education workforce in partnership with the Department of Early Education and Care.