Child care shortage impacts rural communities and businesses
Located in the heart of Vermont, along Interstate 89 and just south of Montpelier, the Randolph area faces the typical challenges in our state. Our area residents are working to grow our businesses and schools, ensure economic stability, and make Randolph a place young families seek for good reasons. Like most other Vermont communities, the lack of high-quality, affordable child care has created a significant barrier to our quest.
The impact of the child care shortage on economic and community development in our region cannot be overstated. Local businesses and community leaders have consistently identified the shortage of child care as a primary challenge, along with housing, that must be resolved before other economic and community initiatives can be successfully implemented.
Without access to high-quality child care, our businesses cannot successfully attract or retain the workforce they need to grow. Our local hospital, town officials, school district administrators, Vermont Technical College and a wide variety of business managers in our region agree this has reached a critical stage. According to a new report from Let’s Grow Kids, 76% of infants in Orange County who are likely to need care, lack access to regulated child care programs. Worse yet, parents who are fortunate to find child care often cannot afford it. For example, Vermont families with two young children are required to spend up to 30% of their household income on child care alone.
An unfortunate fact is there are thousands of qualified and willing Vermonters who can’t join or return to the workforce because they are unable to find or cannot afford suitable child care. That condition further compounds the well-known difficulty everyone is experiencing recruiting new workers for all business, organizations and public jobs.
Following two years of working to address this issue, a Randolph area group that involves some of our best and brightest community business leaders and educators concluded the economics affecting child care stand in the way of a sustainable business model. Through collaboration and partnerships, we are moving forward with a potential solution, but we feel compelled meanwhile to sound the alarm, considering the extent of the challenge. The recent closure of several Vermont child care operators only emphasizes this. Simply put, programs can’t charge parents the true cost of care and are forced to pay staff incredibly low wages to make ends meet. The median annual wage for a child care worker in Vermont is approximately $29,000, and is often without benefits – that’s about half the amount kindergarten teachers make. At the same time, the necessary credentials to work in the field become more significant.
The benefits of high-quality early care and education are clear, but an effective system cannot evolve until we create a meaningful career path for the workers in the system. We must do better to support the child care workforce and businesses which allow parents in all industries to show up to work each day, and in order to meet the current demand for child care, Let’s Grow Kids estimates Vermont needs at a minimum of 2,000 additional early childhood educators.
As Vermont continues to investigate ways to attract new young people to our state and improve the workforce outlook, we believe child care should be central to that effort. Therefore, we urge our legislators to support investments to grow and sustain Vermont’s early childhood education workforce.
We repeat our opening statement that high-quality child care, or lack thereof, is either a deal maker or deal breaker for recruiting and retaining the young working families we need to sustain our rural communities and businesses. And, our ability to support child care providers to enter, advance and remain in the field is fundamental. An effective program would require significant economic support (i.e. new tax dollars – not the cannibalization of other initiatives) but we predict the impact would be immediate and meaningful. Communities like Randolph have everything in place to sustain a thriving future. However, we need to invest today in the early educators and child care businesses that will give our workforce a fighting chance. As they do so, they will be nurturing our future generations, a most important task!
Robert Haynes is executive director of Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., and Damian DiNicola is co-chair of the Randolph Region Reenergized (“R3”) Economic Development, Tourism & Childcare Task Force and an attorney in Randolph.
by Robert Haynes and Damian DiNicola