When Vanessa Sandford enrolled her baby daughter at her company’s on-site childcare centre three years ago, she had no idea what a “blessing” it would be.
“It cuts down on all that running around in circles, the driving through traffic, that makes things so hard when you are a parent,” she says. “And my daughter is quite a shy little girl. She derives a lot of comfort from knowing I’m right next door.”
Sandford is a high-level director of development at the biopharmaceutical company CSL in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Parkville. Her hours can be long and unpredictable. Sometimes, if overseas conferencing, for example, keeps her at work late, her husband, who works at CSL’s Broadmeadows centre, can pick up their little girl. They live in a suburb nearby, so it’s convenient for both of them.
There’s a hidden bonus in it for Sandford. “It’s not so obvious but, when you are a working parent, you don’t get to connect with other parents,” she says. “There are four or five of us here who chat about our children, find out what’s happening at the centre. There’s one man who drops his child off after I do and I can ask him to look in on my daughter and make sure she’s all right.”
In Australia 800,000 families use childcare. Fifty per cent of their fees are covered by government subsidy, up to $7,500 per child per year.
Yet many families still struggle with the cost and the logistics of childcare and, in the lead-up to the federal election, it’s an issue firmly on the political agenda. Last week Labor released their policy promising to match dollar for dollar the government’s existing $3bn policy, with considerable tweaking of content. Company-sponsored childcare is not on either radar, however.
“Labor supports workplace initiatives to balance work and family, including on-site childcare,” the opposition’s early childhood spokeswoman, Kate Ellis, says. “However, the reality is that not every parent will have access to company-provided childcare. Government continues to play a critical role in supporting families – early education and care is important for workforce participation but also for children’s development.”
The minister, Simon Birmingham, was asked about company-sponsored childcare but didn’t comment beyond sending the Coalition’s current policy document. The Coalition’s 2016 budget provisions for childcare were delayed after the Senate refused to pass cuts to the family tax benefit.
So CSL is one of a small group of companies that are stepping up, committing to pro-social human resources management by providing on-site or nearby childcare facilities for employees.
Yet they are the exception to the rule and it’s hard to find figures for the prevalence of on-site childcare in Australia. In the US, a third of the 100 companies Fortune magazine rated the best to work for provided on-site childcare, according to a 2012 article.
Experts at Australian universities say they haven’t come across statistics for on-site childcare but industry sources estimate that perhaps 40 to 50 companies offer on-site childcare. Tom Hardwick, the chief executive of Guardian Early Learning Group, a nationwide provider of childcare facilities, says there are practical reasons why the number is not as high as in the US, namely the government funding.
Hardwick also points to economies of scale. “Companies in the US are much larger, some might have 10,000 or 50,000 employees,” he adds, “and a lot of large companies have suburban campuses with lots of land but far from amenities.”
CSL headquarters has lots of land, even though it is in inner Melbourne – it abuts the Melbourne zoo and Parkville parklands. Optus opened its on-site centre for children from six weeks old to school age when it moved from inner North Sydney to spacious purpose-built headquarters in Macquarie Park in 2007.
“Providing on-site childcare at Macquarie Park assists parents in their commute by not having to make multiple trips in peak-hour traffic,” an Optus spokesman said. “Our main goal is to make it easy for our working parents to balance their job and their families. Not only do parents benefit from reduced travel time before and after work but quick and easy access to their children, if needed, throughout the day results in more peace of mind.”
It works both ways. The convenience to parents is obvious. And that helps companies attract and retain staff, particularly talented women who often go missing after maternity leave. It can be an addition to gender equality and diversity programs, which include the extended parental leave that progressive companies are beginning to offer.
Companies that provide childcare rely on expert service providers to set up and run the centres. Early Childhood Management Services, or ECMS, runs CSL’s centre, for example. Optus’s is run by Sydney Cove Children’s Centre. “Companies don’t want to become a childcare operator,” Hardwick points out. “There are regulations and risks involved, and specialised staff required, and they have enough to worry about managing their own businesses.”
The provider might rent on-site space from companies, sometimes at a discount, or find premises close by, often taking in other children as numbers fluctuate. Employees pay market price but have priority, and are guaranteed places even if they join a wait-list later than an outside parent.
Benchmarks for childcare provision are also becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The whole sector is moving from care to early learning: more than just making sure the child is well fed and rested and has his runny nose wiped,” Hardwick says. “It’s rapidly becoming clear that structured play gives children a much better start in life and they are happier too when they are occupied.”
Pre-school childcare is not the only pressing need for parents. The insurance company IAG was one of the first companies to organise a national program of school holiday care for the children of its employees. Designed for children between five and 12 years old, it was begun in 2014.
“There are 12 weeks of school holidays annually and, while most parents use their four weeks of annual leave a year, there’s often a month’s gap where parents rely on paid care, family, friends or unpaid leave to care for their children,” says Donna Walker, chairwoman of its diversity inclusion action group.
The program, she adds, allows staff to use their annual leave “when they actually want to”. Unlike the onsite pre-school services, the program is free to staff – an annual saving of up to $5,000 per child, according to Walker. “Rather than charge our parents for the care of their children, we suggest a donation of $5 per day per child to one of our workplace giving partners; passing on the benefit to our wider community,” she says.