By Tim Murray / and Kate Sharry

The most important key to the success of any business is its workforce.

We can personally attest to that fact: The top priority of the 2,300 members of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce is workforce development. And the kind of workforce that makes a business successful is one that’s skilled, focused, and as productive as possible. That’s the workforce that Massachusetts will need to keep our economy strong in the years and decades to come.

The good news is that we know how to get it.

It requires an innovative approach in education that starts at pre-kindergarten, plus child care options that enable parents to continue working productively in their careers, and also a way to pay early childhood educators and staff a salary capable of recruiting and retaining them in fulfilling the needs of the first two elements. Each these three pieces is critical for attaining our overall goal in workforce development.

The first step is starting early. Building the workforce of tomorrow doesn’t begin in college or high school. It begins with high-quality early childhood education and care programs targeting our youngest learners.

Starting early makes sense, because the first few years of life are a unique time of brain development. High-quality early education and care programs prepare young minds for future success by teaching foundational early math, reading, and social-emotional knowledge.

This knowledge forms the basis of essential skills that kids will need as they grow and move through school and the workplace. Research backs up the conclusion that quality early childhood programs can be a difference-maker, particularly for at-risk kids: The national business-leader organization ReadyNation, a nonprofit advocate for early childhood education, spotlighted a peer-reviewed analysis of over 120 different studies showing that high-quality, pre-K programs help kids become “kindergarten-ready.” This is critical because research also shows that kids who are kindergarten-ready have higher math and reading scores, better high-school graduation rates, lower rates of special education or grade repetition, and a host of other traits that help put students on a path to college and career success.

Just as quality pre-K teaches students the skills that lead to a stronger workforce tomorrow, quality child care helps parents and businesses be as productive as possible today.

Quality care boosts positive social-emotional learning lessons for children and overall long-term development. It also allows parents to focus on work during the day, rather than becoming distracted at work, missing work, or even having to stop working because of a lack of affordable child-care options.

How big is this problem? Studies show that child-care issues cost American businesses billions every year in lost productivity. Both of us are parents as well as business leaders, and we can vouch for the fact that access to affordable, quality child care can play a major, positive role at work and at home.

Targeted investments that improve access to and quality of early childhood education and care programs bolster our economy today and tomorrow. But, remember what we said at the outset: The most important key to success is the workforce itself.

Without a strong early education and care workforce, the Commonwealth won’t be able to meet the needs of children and families who can benefit from these programs.

While low unemployment rates are great news, they also mean that the supply of workers is low, and people have more choices about where to work. If potential teachers and staff don’t go into the early childhood field, that means there will be fewer slots for children.

Today, almost 40 percent of early educators in Massachusetts earn so little that they have to rely on some form of public assistance. The average salary for an early educator is under $28,000. Meanwhile, the average entry-level, public-school teacher makes about $40,000. Low salaries can create serious problems in terms of retaining talent and avoiding employee turnover. We need a long-term solution to the challenge of improving our early-education workforce.

There have been some positive developments on this front recently. Last year, Governor Baker and the House and Senate invested $38.5 million in a pool to increase its state funding to improve pay and retention for early childhood educators. This boosted the average salary of a subsidized preschool teacher from $26,400 to $27,984.

This year, there’s a House proposal that will both boost this rate reserve pool by another $20 million and will dedicate $8.5 million toward creating early-education-workforce professional development programs in our community colleges. Speaker DeLeo deserves credit for his leadership on this issue.

These are important strides, but we must do more. Improving quality, access, and the workforce for crucial early childhood programs can help the lives of Massachusetts children and families in both immediate and long-term ways while also keeping our economy strong and healthy.

Tim Murray, of Worcester, the former lieutenant governor and mayor of Worcester, is president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and a member of ReadyNation. Kate Sharry, of Paxton, is president/owner of Group Benefits Strategies, and chair of the Board of Directors of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, and a member of ReadyNation.