Early educators are leaving the industry due to excessive workloads and low pay, according to a survey of thousands of staff.
The United Workers Union polled almost 4000 current and former early educators, releasing the data on Tuesday.
According to the union, workers are leaving at record levels due to the industry's conditions.
More than a quarter of current educators reported they plan to leave the sector within the next 12 months and of those educators who do plan to stay, almost half (46 per cent) think about leaving 'all of the time' or 'most of the time'.
It's a sector that needs about 40,000 more staff by 2023 to meet growing demand.
"The message from early educators across the country is clear: they are at breaking point," UWU's early education director Helen Gibbons said in a statement.
"There is no early childhood sector without early educators, and they simply can't afford to stay and hold it together anymore."
"The pandemic has exacerbated an existing problem, with job vacancies close to doubling compared to pre-COVID levels. High workload because of increased understaffing is pushing more and more educators out of the sector."
The majority of workers (70 per cent) told the survey they were 'always' or 'often' worried about their financial situation, 81 per cent of centre directors say they have difficulties recruiting and across the industry, and providers say new enrolments are capped to deal with staff shortages.
Two thirds of workers said they were leaving the sector because they cannot afford to stay.
"The remuneration for the responsibility asked of educators is ridiculous. I could get more money stacking shelves at Coles," one director said.
The poll included more than 200 people who had already left early education, 67 per cent of which would not recommend a career in the sector.
Almost three quarters of them said changes to working conditions in recent years had played a role in their decision to leave.
The most common reason for leaving was excessive workload impacting their ability to provide quality education and care, followed by feeling undervalued and workplace stress.
"Without urgent action, this crisis will spiral out of control and children and families will miss out," Ms Gibbons said.
The report called for targeted federal government funding to improve the sector's pay and conditions.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said the government was "finalising a workforce strategy in collaboration with states and territories and the early childhood sector".
He said more workers were being encouraged to join the sector through JobTrainer Places and a 42 per cent reduction to the cost of early childhood teaching degrees.
"Early childhood educators do an incredible job and I appreciate their efforts to support families during COVID," he said.
Australian Associated Press