Chloe Learey: Supply and demand in child care — a failed market
This commentary is by Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and a member of the Building Bright Futures state advisory council.
As we emerge from the pandemic, an important wakeup call is being sounded: There is a massive child care worker shortage.
We have known about the workforce challenges in child care for years — low wages are a deterrent for people entering the field and lead to high turnover — and Covid-19 has brought these challenges to a crisis point. There are child care classrooms in our community right now that cannot open because we cannot find teachers to fill positions.
This is particularly problematic at a time when employers in many essential sectors are having difficulty hiring, since child care is a critical part of the infrastructure that makes it possible for people to go to work.
Building a qualified workforce in child care that is paid compared to the value of the position will not happen in a private market system. In order to pay higher wages, the cost of the service must increase. Families are already paying an astronomical amount of tuition (such as $1,000 per month), which does not even cover the true cost of providing care. The median hourly wage of early educators in Vermont was $14.80 in 2020 (vs. $26.88 for kindergarten teachers), and the range was $11.94 to $23.56.
However, what is more important to look at is the overall compensation package. Health insurance (another failed market) and retirement benefits are a luxury many child care programs cannot provide. This is why bills such as the recently passed H.171 in Vermont that move forward public investment in child care are so important.
Supporting the foundational development that will lead to the future success of young children in school and beyond is one critical function of child care, which is why the term “early care and education” is more fitting. It is a two-generation economic development strategy: allowing the current workforce to be employed while developing the future workforce.
The value proposition for public investment is clear. Now, we need the political will to make it happen. Proposals at the federal level — including the American Families Plan, the Child Care for Working Families Act, and the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act — deserve attention, debate, and support.
Locally, we have employers who need employees, employees who need child care, and classrooms that are closed because we cannot find enough teachers. We are fortunate to have resources like the early childhood program at Windham Regional Career Center, and an early childhood education degree at Community College of Vermont. There are some financial resources to help people interested in the field access professional development, like college courses, so that they do not have to carry debt for their education. There are grants to help providers improve and expand programs.
But there are many barriers that can get in the way of teachers entering or staying in child care, whether in a center-based setting or running a small business out of their home. The Child Care Counts Coalition of Windham County has been working for three years to maintain and expand the capacity of child care in our region with some successes: supporting the early childhood program at the Windham Regional Career Center to restart; providing resources to help keep the Mulberry Bush child care open; and regularly surveying employees and families to monitor needs in the community.
There is uncertainty right now about how child care will be impacted by the “pandemic effect”— factors such as working from home, continued health concerns, overall shifts in family life, and people (mostly women) leaving the workforce completely will continue to play a role in the evolution of the sector. It is important now more than ever that we redouble our efforts to make sure this critical part of economic infrastructure not only survives, but that we take the opportunity to invest and make it thrive.
Locally, that means investing in the workforce. The coalition is developing different projects, including creating a local early educator fund that is flexible and responsive to individuals, to meet the need in our community. It will take efforts at all levels –—federal, state and local — to address the staffing shortage crisis we face in child care. It is a shortage that will impact all of us, whether we have young children or not, and it will take many of us working together across sectors to make a difference.
by Chloe Learey