HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's early child care sector is facing retention challenges caused by low pay for workers who feel "unappreciated and underpaid," and by the rollout of the province's pre-primary program, a new study says.

The study released Wednesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said universal pre-primary has had a destabilizing effect because it has made the school-based public sector more attractive to workers who get greater access to paid sick days, health, and pension benefits.

Study authors Christine Saulnier of the policy centre, and Acadia University associate professor of sociology Lesley Frank, call the province's offering of universal pre-primary to all four-year-olds by 2020 "the most important development in at least a decade."

"While improved access to care is good news for Nova Scotian families, the survey data show that both program staff and employers experienced the destablizing effect of the implementation of the pre-primary program," the study said.

"Most notable... the continuing and deepening divide between early learning and the more recognized rewarded school-based learning."

As a result, a survey conducted with the study found 82 per cent of the employers who responded indicated they had trouble recruiting and retaining qualified staff in the past year.

Among a list of 14 of the most pressing problems flagged by early childhood educators (ECEs) were working conditions, a lack of support for special needs children, appropriate staffing support, staff morale, and wages and benefits.

When it comes to benefits in particular, the study said 67 per cent of pre-primary workers have access compared to 16 per cent in the non-profit sector and 12 per cent in for-profit centres. Overall, only 28 per cent of all ECEs felt their benefits were adequate.

The study also said the survey data "indicates considerable discontentment about wages in the ECE workforce."

"One respondent wrote, 'Pay is horrible in child care in Nova Scotia.' Another respondent wrote that ECEs are 'unappreciated and underpaid'," it said.

The survey found only 22 per cent of Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) feel their pay is fair considering their background and skills, and that 67 per cent feel their salary doesn't adequately reflect the work they do.

"In light of what we know about the need for adequate compensation for the health of the sector and considering the high rate of discontentment with wages displayed in the survey data, further analysis of the provincial wage regulation is warranted," said the study.

It said the outdated 2012 government benchmark salary of $16.55 is "inadequate" and recommends either $18.10, which was the national median hourly wage for 2016, or $19.52, which would bring wages to 60 per cent of the median hourly wages of Nova Scotia teachers.

The report notes that although the provincial government indicated in 2016 that it would provide funding to qualified centres to bring ECE wages to the 2012 Canadian average, "the most recent data still shows that they (ECEs) have the lowest wages in the country."

The research also showed there was also a lack of public understanding and respect for the profession.

The study said "far from glorified babysitters", the ECE workforce is highly educated with specialized early learning training and it recommends a campaign to dispel myths and misconceptions along with funding to support the profession. It said the provincial government should also explore setting up a regulatory college.

"The bottom line is that the provincial government must eliminate the complicated grant programs and roll the funding into a plan for a system not unlike our public education system," the report said.

It said an accepted benchmark calls on the provincial government to devote three per cent of its overall budget to early childhood education -- a move that would require a doubling of the amount currently spent.