THE Government is launching a pound;3 million drive to recruit 100,000 workers over the next two years to help meet its targets for childcare and nursery places.
The campaign starts at the end of June and runs till March next year; it will include national advertising and workshops around the country. A 15-hour "taster" of careers working with pre-school children is also being introduced.
About 460,000 people, 97 per cent of them women, are employed in the early-years
sector. But with a 20 per cent turnover each year and government plans for expansion, thousands more will be needed.
The Government had pledged to provide a free nursery place for every four-year-old and two-thirds of three-year-olds by 2002. It has also promised out-of-school childcare for a million UK children by 2003.
Currently all four-year-olds and just under half, or 47,000, three-year-olds have places.
A 10 per cent drop in childminders last year is of particular concern. They are seen as crucial to childcare in rural areas and in helping lone parents into work.
Education minister Margaret Hodge said she was also seeking pound;300m from the Treasury to raise the status of early-years workers through better training.
She said: "We are creating a national childcare infrastructure. This country had a terrible record of investment in early years but I am hopeful that the new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report will have good things to say abot how the situation has changed.
"But there are still huge gaps. My ambition would be to focus in the first instance on raising the quality of leaders [nursery managers] to national vocational qualification level 3 [equivalent to A-level] to 4 [equivalent to a higher national diploma]."
Lucy Lloyd, head of policy at the Daycare Trust, childcare information charity, welcomed the campaign.
She said: "The challenge is to make sure people have a clear pathway to qualifications and jobs.
"To raise the profile and prestige of childcare we need a strong career structure and pay levels.
"There needs to be enough government money to ensure early years are not dependent on the already-stretched pockets of parents."
Despite the planned expansion the Government's policies have been attacked by pre-school campaigners.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance has claimed that 3,500 playgroups are facing closure because schools are "hoovering up" three and four-year-olds.
But whether jobs and places are created in schools or playgroups is immaterial, according to Ms Hodge.
She said: "The debate about where a child should be is a false one. It should be about what they are doing and who they are doing it with. We should not have anybody defending patches."
The number of working mothers with children under five has increased from 32 per cent to 51 per cent in the past 10 years.
But a survey published by Mother and Baby magazine this month found that 81 per cent of mothers with young children who responded would prefer not to work.