By Jamie Ee Wen Wei
It is no longer a small world of opportunities.
These days, the preschool scene is buzzing and more Singaporeans have taken note of the industry's career prospects.
Demand for preschool teachers is expected to grow. The Government has announced plans to set up 200 more childcare centres by 2013, bringing the total number to about 1,000.
Training centres such as NTUC's Seed Institute and Learning Capital have noted strong demand for their diploma and degree courses in early childhood education.
The first local degree course in early childhood education and management, which will be offered by UniSIM in partnership with Seed Institute from January, has attracted 85 applications.
Preschools have also been flooded with job applications. At Pat's Schoolhouse, for instance, its founder-director Patricia Koh said the preschool chain gets about 20 job applications every month.
'We may not advertise openly on a regular basis but we do have many teachers writing to us for a position,' said the veteran preschool educator, who started Pat's Schoolhouse in 1988.
Industry players note that people of a better calibre are entering the field. They are mostly new graduates or people making mid-career switches. These entrants are in their 20s and 30s.
Since January this year, all new preschool teachers must have at least five O-level passes, including a credit in English, and a diploma in preschool education teaching. The diploma must be obtained within four years of joining the industry.
'Preschool educators are now seen as professionals, not just babysitters. This mindset change is a key reason why the childcare industry is becoming more attractive today,' said Dr T. Chandroo, chairman and chief executive of Modern Montessori International Group.
Ms Ho Yin Fong, Seed Institute's academic director, said recent pay hikes have also brought cheer to the industry. She notes that the average salary has increased by 20 per cent to 30 per cent this year.
Just this month, PAP Community Foundation, Singapore's largest kindergarten operator, adjusted its salary range to match market rates.
A kindergarten principal with an early childhood education degree may earn between $2,300 and $4,375 a month while preschool teachers with degrees can expect at least $2,100. Childcare teaching staff will get up to $300 more too.
Industry players point out that teaching is just one role in the field. There are also options to be principals, curriculum specialists, centre managers or trainers.
Mrs Koh said: 'There are many opportunities for someone who is new. However, they must be prepared to teach first before they can hope to teach others or to manage one of our centres.'
There is also a slew of government initiatives, such as a train-and-place scheme for preschool teachers, to help newbies.
Under the scheme, they get employment and hands-on experience in a childcare centre while undergoing training to complete their diploma in early childhood care and education. The course fees and salaries are subsidised by the Workforce Development Agency.
Despite the recent buzz, industry players said attracting high-quality staff remains a key challenge.
Ms Monica Lim, Cherrybrook Kindergarten's supervisor, said there are some people who still hold misconceptions about the preschool industry.
'They think it's an easy job which will require them to work for half a day. They do not understand that there's a lot of behind- the-scenes work, such as doing lesson plans.'
She added that the curriculum for preschools has become more advanced: 'It's not good enough to teach them ABCs or one, two, three. Kids today are much more exposed to the world, so we also introduce them to topics like geography, history and science.'
Which is why Ms June Rusdon, chief executive of early childhood education provider Knowledge Universe Singapore, feels preschool teachers deserve more respect.
'The industry needs to work at raising the perception and the respect - it needs to be elevated to the same level that people have for teachers in normal schools,'she said.
For more information on the early childhood care and education sector, log on to wsq.wda.gov.sg/IndustrySkills/Community+and+Social+Services/Overview/ECE