A Moment with Dr. Moore

December 15, 2021

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind

It’s hard to hire staff for child care settings, as recent news stories show. Eight in 10 providers say they can’t find enough folks to hire, and half say the shortfall is worse than it was before the pandemic. Many providers had no choice but to cut their hours and serve fewer kids, despite strenuous efforts to get the educators they need. Providers have raised wages as much as their slim margins allow, asked parents for referrals and offered internship credits to college students. “The only thing we haven’t done is put up sandwich boards and stand on the corner with a spinning sign,” said Claire Miller, director of children and youth services for Decatur, Georgia. “But I’m not eliminating that yet.”

The people who typically go to work at child care settings are opting instead to take jobs as bank tellers, administrative assistants and retail clerks. Like 98 percent of occupations, these positions pay more than $12 an hour, the paltry median wage in the child care profession. “We can’t match Walmart offering $15 and up,” said Sky Burdin, director of Jasmin Child Care and Preschool in Fargo, North Dakota. And the low-income families she serves have lost the care they need. “We don’t have our toddler room open right now,” Burdin said. “Even the infant room isn’t currently full because we don’t have enough staff.”

And the days of boosting profits “on the backs of working families is done,” explained Jordyn Rossignol, owner of Miss Jordyn’s Child Development Center in Caribou, Maine. Rossignol has lost 24 staff members since the pandemic started, and nearly all told her they quit because they could make more money elsewhere. Among her former employees, two are working as bank tellers now, and one went to a trucking company. Many became nannies, and her best toddler teacher now works across the street at a paint store.

Personal tales of woe like these are part of a bigger public picture. Even before the pandemic, fewer than five million of the nation’s roughly eight million 3- and 4-year-olds attended preschool, and this longtime crisis in child care has only gotten worse since COVID appeared on the scene. Employment in child care settings has dropped more than 10 percent. As recently as September, over 4.4 million mothers had endured breaks in their access to child care. And there are still 1.5 million American women who have dropped out of the labor force, largely due to child care issues, and been unable to return to work.

It’s clear our child care system isn’t working either, so I can only applaud the Build Back Better Act, now before the U.S. Senate—and pray that it passes into law. The bill would invest $400 billion over the next six years to raise wages for child care workers, provide families with ample subsidies for child care and create a system of universal pre-K. It would make preschool available for six million more children and require at least 40,000 more teachers, a heavy lift given the current lack of child care staff.

“We don’t really have a pipeline of early childhood educators who are sitting idle,” said Chad Aldeman, policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University in DC. “If the federal dollars boost up pre-K enrollment overall, that could produce a hiring crunch,” he warned, “potentially leading to more shortages and a surge of novice and uncertified teachers.”

So, there are steps we should take now to help build the early childhood workforce we’ll need. For example, we should build more apprenticeship programs, like the CDA®, into high schools, and the Council has paved the way by publishing a CDA Handbook for high school administrators and instructors. We also encourage higher ed to guide more college students toward a profession that urgently needs their perspectives and presence. In addition, colleges should take measures to better serve nontraditional students who are looking to enter the early childhood field. Many of these students are working moms or immigrants. So, more colleges should step up to meet their needs by offering flexible class schedules and English as a second language courses.

And everyone who’s concerned about young learners should keep speaking out about the value of well-prepared teachers. “The biggest concern with the success of the Build Back Better Act is going to be tied to whether we can get the right staff to get the right workforce,” said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association. And providers agree. “I do not just want a warm body in front of a child who needs time and attention,” said Tony D’Agostino, who owns Inspire! Crayon Campus near Rochester, New York.

We must not lower standards to meet the surge of demand the Build Back Better Act would ignite. Credentials like the CDA give our educators the competence and confidence to be ready on day one in the classroom. Good training matters since children who have skilled, qualified teachers are more likely to graduate high school, be employed, and have stable family structures—household conditions that help their children have better lives, too. That’s the big picture we should all keep in mind to get the pre-K workforce prepared for what’s ahead.

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