Childcare identified as key to economic development


The economic/workforce climate has people involved in economic development in Central Missouri welcoming new approaches to evolving challenges.

Companies are experiencing problems attracting workers, difficulty retaining high school and college grads, and challenges stemming from infrastructure barriers — housing, transportation and childcare.

The Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Jefferson City Regional Economic Partnership (REP) developed a workforce coalition to address challenges the region faces. One of the coalition’s action teams is focused on addressing concerns about childcare capacity in the area, according to Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the chamber. As the team came together, the organizations witnessed three local centers closing down.

“It impacted a couple hundred children,” Plummer said. “We realized this was an urgent need. We need to try to bolster child care in our area.”

Missouri and partner organizations have set up regional hubs to strengthen Missouri’s Early Childhood Systems to better meet families’ needs, enhance and streamline training opportunities for early learning professionals, and improve systems to better inform decision-making about early learning, according to the local hub‘s Facebook page .

“The goal is a coordinated system that is responsive to families and makes it easier to access and navigate, thus, creating a smooth transition between early childhood and entry into kindergarten,” the page states.

HUB 16 includes the counties of Cole, Osage, Miller and Moniteau. This page has been created to keep stakeholders up to date on what is happening with the HUB in our region and how you can become involved.

The United Way of Central Missouri and the HUB connected the coalition with child care centers in Cole County — so the coalition could try to identify their needs and support them, Plummer said. The coalition surveyed childcare providers.

“What has risen to the top is (childcare facilities) have a workforce issue,” Plummer said. “They are trying to attract and retain the workers they need for classrooms.”

But they can’t find enough employees who can supervise a limited number of children based on each facility’s licensing.

Luke Holtschneider, JCREP president, said he’s been involved in economic development for 13 years.

“My involvement in childcare has been nonexistent until about the past year,” Holtschneider continued. “Some of the challenges facing child care facilities and the impact that presents to industries and employees is more prominent than it’s ever been.”

JCREP is working with public and private employers — identifying key barriers to accessing workforce. Employees accessing child care has become one of the priorities to address, he said.

“We’re trying to identify new strategies,” he said. “There are no single solutions or answers to the equations. It’s going to take a new approach. We are working on this differently than maybe we have done before — using a broader engagement to begin to address some of these challenges.”

The effort is tapping state and local facilities.

There has always been an issue with having adequate childcare, according to Paula Benne, president of C&S Business Services, which provides staffing for agencies. The COVID-19 pandemic injured the childcare industry, she continued.

A large number of people managed to work from home during the pandemic.

But after the tornado that hit the area in May of 2019, the number of available childcare facilities shrank. It’s down by at least 11, Benne said. Jefferson City lost its only 24-hour childcare facility during the tornado. The facility has reopened elsewhere, but is still struggling to find staffing to offer 24-hour service, Benne said.

Businesses are asking how they can help improve the childcare environment, she said.

A HUB 16 initiative likely to kick off this week will partner six businesses each with a childcare facility, she said.

The businesses act somewhat like mentors. If they have expertise they can provide, such as ability to assist with bookkeeping, they might do that.

Theresa Verslues, vice president of United Way of Central Missouri, said the nonprofit agency had been involved in an early childhood initiative since 2007. During that time, it had offered several training and support programs for early learning professionals.

Shortly after the Office of Childhood launched last year, it established the early childhood HUBs — connecting school districts and community partners, such as the United Way.

During the first year for the HUBs, their goals were to gather resources, and look at needs in early childhood.

The local HUB held monthly meetings, rotating through each of the four counties it serves.

“We wanted to hear from anyone working in that early childhood arena,” Verslues said. “That’s how we made that connection with the chamber. One of their task forces was for childcare.”

What the organizations are learning is that the quality workforce isn’t large enough to support fully reopening childcare facilities.

Workers are saying they need quality, less-expensive childcare that is available on demand.

Companies have tried to be flexible to help workers find child support, according to Shauna Kerperin, the HUB administrator for Cole, Osage, Miller and Moniteau counties.

“The chamber listened to what their businesses needed. They realized they weren’t experts in that area, so they came to us,” Kerperin said. “They might see that businesses are coming up with more ways to offer support.”

The community is empathetic to businesses trying to offer child care. The chamber sees that if it helps businesses with childcare, it makes a difference for the entire community, she continued. And having a business community that is willing to do what it needs to make employees’ lives easier may attract more workers who wish to be a part of a community like that.

She added the business community needs to make it easier for people to work in the childcare field and create a “substitutes list” — similar to teachers in public school — while at the same time making the field more attractive to young students.

“We’re looking at sub lists. If a childcare worker calls in sick, what do childcare providers do? They don’t have backup,” Kerperin said. “We’re trying to figure out how to develop workers — how to get credentials in place so they can walk in and work in the center.”

And, economic development leaders suggest students should learn as early as middle school that childcare can be a great field to go into.

An option is to offer 12-hour training for potential substitutes, Verslues said.

The HUB is piggybacking on training the Missouri Department of Social Services conducts — offering CPR, first aid, health and safety, and a background check in a 12-hour environment (generally over two days).

“Then they can basically be ready to be hired,” Verslues said. “We’re trying to build that pipeline and introduce it to people — to ultimately have a sub list just like in schools.”

It’s a lot of work, she admitted. But it has a goal of offering 12-hour training.

“It would be great to reach out to State Tech or Lincoln, to see if students wanted part-time work.”

They could fill some of the gaps at the facilities. A sub list would be great with retired teachers, she added.

“The key with all these partners in education — we’re trying to elevate the early childhood field and educate the business community,” Verslues said. “Make sure our kiddos are getting the quality of care. Making sure they have access. All these things, we’re discussing on a chamber level.”

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