Dawn Uribe, owner of Mis Amigos Spanish Immersion Preschool in Hopkins, has had to make some hard choices amid an ongoing worker shortage in the child care industry.
“I want our teachers to have a workable, livable wage, and I’m trying to make it so that our teachers can get paid like elementary school teachers,” she said. “That means that we have to charge our parents a lot of money, and that prices some of our families out.”
Uribe’s story is not unique. Across the state and the nation, child care providers are doing what they can to boost worker pay without financially burdening families. Child care organizations are also testing out a few other ways to attract new workers and keep existing staff.
Like several other sectors, the child care industry shed tens of thousands of jobs during the early days of Covid-19. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were just over a million people working in child care services nationally at the start of March 2020. That number sunk to about 680,000 by April of the same year.
Unlike other sectors, though, recovery in the child care industry has been slow and spotty since. As of September 2022, the industry employed about 950,000 individuals, according to federal figures.
Rural parts of the U.S. have been hit especially hard by worker shortages. Last month, the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development released a report noting that child care businesses in rural parts of Minnesota are losing workers faster than they’re gaining new ones. The decline has been aggravated by Covid-19 and inflation. In the last year, child care centers have been struggling to keep workers who leaving for higher-paying jobs in the food and retail industries.
Beyond staffing shortages, child care providers face several other challenges that exacerbate their economic issues. These include tight regulations, staff burnout, and greater numbers of enrolled families leaving.
“I have never seen our providers and our programs as completely stressed and desperate as they are right now,” said Clare Sanford, government relations chair for state trade group the Minnesota Child Care Association.
Minnesota regulations spell out specific ratios for child care providers: The state-required ratio for adults to infants is 1:4, whereas the ratio for adults to preschoolers is 1:10.
Compared to jobs in other industries, the hiring process for child care workers is more selective because of these regulations and other certification standards. Even if child care providers receive a large number of applicants, they’re not able to hire all of them due to a lack of qualifications.
“You can’t just throw anybody into [child care centers]. They have to meet certain qualifications that the state outlines, and finding them has gotten harder and harder,” said Joe Piket, owner of Primrose Schools locations in Champlin Park and Maple Grove. “I can’t enroll as many kids as I have the capacity for, and I can’t put more kids in the building by hiring anybody off the street.”
In addition to increasing pay, some child care providers have begun offering free certification and educational training to staff. That could include paying for employees to complete their Child Development Associate (CDA) certification, or even bachelors degrees.
“There are ways we help get that [education] paid for by the individual who couldn’t afford to go to school themselves,” Piket said. “With the dire need to get teachers in place, we’re paying for it all just trying to get them through it as quickly as we can.”
Changing the narrative
Child care is often framed as an underpaid and difficult job. But child care centers are also working to highlight rewarding aspects of the job. The YWCA, for instance, attempts to create a more engaged workplace through staff activities and enrichment opportunities.
“There’s a lot of work around making sure that people feel engaged with the community they’re working in,” said Stephanie Thomas, VP of early childhood education at YWCA Minneapolis.
She added that the organization is offering child care staff numerous other benefits aside from pay raises, including discounted child care and access to health and wellness programs. At Mis Amigos, Uribe also provides teachers with discounted child care and gives them recognition for their jobs.
“We’re making a way to have a career and a path,” Uribe said. “One of our core values is professionalism, and I want to see our teachers treated in a professional manner. We are trying to make it a place where people want to work, and we treat our staff with respect.”
Still, even as child care providers work to improve working conditions, industry advocates say it’s not enough to fill the growing gaps in the field. Many are calling for increased government support to stay open in the future.
“We need public investment to step in to bridge that gap so we can make care more affordable for families, but we can also invest more in our workforce and increase their levels of compensation and education,” said Sanford with the Minnesota Child Care Association.
The YWCA’s Thomas suggests providing tax credits for people working in the early childhood field along with government-funded childcare pay assistance for families as solutions to the worker shortage crisis.
Child care is known to be a labor-intensive job, but many people view it as the “workforce behind the workforce.” Uribe explains that we need to “invest in early childhood care as much as we invest in public schools,” and “treat child care workers like teachers.”
Piket with Primrose agrees. “They’re not just child care workers; they’re teachers,” he said. “They have a big influence on kids’ lives. That’s why I think the ones that I’ve had with me for a while have stayed with me: They get a lot of joy out of their work.”