Speaking at an education select committee hearing for its inquiry on the impact of pre-school education on children's life chances, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey) chief executive Liz Bayram said that graduate recruitment is unable to keep pace with an exodus of skilled practitioners.
She said that graduate early years teachers are leaving nurseries due to poor salaries and either taking better paid roles in schools or quitting the sector altogether.
Because not enough students are taking up graduate-level early years courses she said she anticipates that within 10 to 15 years the sector will face a dearth of leaders.
"Practitioners are leaving the sector. Graduates who are keen to stay in early years are doing so in a school environment. But those that aren't are moving out of the sector," said Bayram.
"We have a bubble of challenge coming along. Those that benefitted from the graduate leadership fund 10 or so years ago are getting older and in 10 to 15 years or so may not be in the workforce anymore.
"We haven't got any new graduates coming in. The numbers that are taking on that early years graduate specialism are dropping. There's a growing challenge in the [private, voluntary and independent] sector about where these leaders are going to be."
Steven McIntosh, Save the Children's UK director of poverty policy, advocacy and campaigns, was also giving evidence at the hearing and told MPs that there is already a particular shortage of skilled early years practitioners in disadvantaged areas.
In last year's early years workforce strategy the government had pledged to carry out a feasibility study by March this year into developing a programme to boost the graduate workforce in less affluent areas. But McIntosh told MPs that the government had already missed this deadline.
"The graduate-led workforce is a blind spot for [government]," he said.
"The government promised in their early years strategy that there would be a feasibility study on how to grow the workforce. They have now missed their own deadline in doing that.
"Given the evidence, given there's a clear case for investment in the poorest areas, it is not acceptable that we haven't seen a plan to set out what those options would be for growing the graduate workforce and for really digging down to find out why we are seeing so many people leaving the early years workforce and why recruitment is so low."
Save the Children estimates that 10,000 early years teachers are needed in the sector, he added.
Edward Melhuish, professor of human development at the University of Oxford, told the hearing that investment in staff training, particularly in disadvantaged areas is "a cheap way of improving quality quickly".
"The lesson is put your highest quality teachers with your lowest ability children because that's where you get the biggest pay off. But currently the exact opposite is happening," he said.
The committee hearing also considered whether last year's extension of the free entitlement for three- and four-year-olds of working parents to 30 hours was worsening the attainment gap between rich and poor children.
Currently it is unavailable to unemployed families but can be accessed by parents with a combined income of up to £200,000 a year.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said that a graded system of payments based on income could be a solution.
"A certain amount would be free. Above a certain amount you would pay a bit more due to income. That's more of a European model. We haven't really looked at imaginative systems like that," she said.