In its latest effort to address the ongoing labor shortage, a Zeeland-based manufacturer has a new solution to help its working parents.
Gentex on Wednesday, Nov. 30, unveiled its plan to develop an on-site day care and preschool to provide its employees with convenient and cost-effective access to care for their children.
The Gentex Discovery Preschool will be built and will operate at the company’s headquarters in Zeeland through a partnership with the ODC Network, a nonprofit advancing outdoor education and conservation in West Michigan.
Officially named the Gentex Discovery Preschool: An ODC Network Early Childcare Center, the facility will consist of a 43,000-square-foot building with 12 day care rooms, three infant rooms, an indoor play center, a food preparation area and both office and common space. The center also will include several outdoor nature-based playscapes and a fishing pond.
In addition to the unique nature-based learning opportunities, the preschool will be the first of its kind in the area due to its size and scope, according to Gentex leadership. The facility will be open to accommodate the children of hourly or salaried employees working first or second shifts, with a capacity target of up to 250 children per shift.
For Steve Downing, president and CEO of Gentex, the new child care facility is an innovative way for the company to help employees and further its growth.
“The low availability and high cost of child care has long been a barrier to employment, and we want to remove that obstacle so more people can experience the benefits of being a member of team Gentex,” Downing said.
Gentex has spent recent years strategically working to fill gaps in its workforce and removing various obstacles to employment has remained a priority. The company now has incorporated a limited English proficiency program to enable the recruiting, onboarding, training and supervising of employees who speak Spanish.
Craig Piersma, vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Gentex, said the new preschool is a response to another employment barrier observed by company leadership.
“Child care has always been an issue — we’ve always had that identified as one of those barriers, and I think all of us here who supervise people could see that firsthand,” Piersma said. “And, unfortunately, it also falls predominantly disproportionately upon women who seem to be the ones that either stay at home to provide that child care or end up being responsible for coordinating it. As a team, we saw that it was the next biggest barrier to employment that we needed to take care of.”
According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, Ottawa County currently has “low capacity” for child care, meaning there are 1.9 kids needing care per available slot. More programs and options for the 0-5 age group specifically are needed.
Piersma said the next steps for the planned preschool involve taking a closer look at the specific demand for this offering among Gentex employees.
“We know that there are certainly enough kids in the proper age group to fill it. Now would everybody choose to or want to or need to? That’s what we don’t know yet,” Piersma said. “We’ll be doing some internal surveys to determine what that actual demand looks like, and then how do we go about filling those slots.”
In addition to the convenient on-site location, Gentex plans to offer discounted child care rates as a benefit of employment. Downing said the company wants to make it affordable for families, so the subsidized weekly cost for care will be “much lower” than typical child care rates in today’s market.
As part of the partnership with the ODC Network, the organization’s preschools division will operate the facility. The center will adhere to ODC’s traditional nature-based programming, allowing children to spend time outdoors each day with learning available through active play and exploration.
This type of education has several benefits, according to Travis Williams, ODC’s CEO.
“A nature-based education has been found to support a child’s physical, cognitive and social-emotional development,” Williams said. “It also helps instill an appreciation for our natural resources and the need to be caretakers of the world around us.”
Both Gentex and ODC believe employer-based child care centers like the planned preschool are strategically important to the continued growth of West Michigan in terms of benefitting both adults and children.
“Locating child care centers where employees work is an investment in talent attraction that also supports economic growth and expansion,” Williams said. “Additionally, it’s an investment in children, because quality child care can balance the achievement gap, reduce long-term educational costs, improve health outcomes and much more.”
The new preschool will be made possible by $7.5 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds recently awarded to ODC after project approval from the Ottawa County board of commissioners. The funds will enable ODC to reduce the region’s gap in child care capacity by 10% over the next three years through its work with local partners to create a total of 1,000 additional child care spots across the county.
Groundbreaking for the Gentex Discovery Preschool currently is slated for spring 2023. The facility is projected to open sometime in 2024.
This story can be found in the Dec. 12 issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.