Many industries have been facing workforce shortages lately, but one industry that has continuously been hit hard with staffing problems for years is early childhood education. Reports of high turnover, staffing shortages, tightened hours and limited space have all been highlighted and exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, this is not a new problem. Child care providers and parents have been facing the harsh reality of caring for children without much, if any, public funding for years.
Child care providers say they've been consistently undervalued, underpaid and misunderstood and the consequences of the nation’s disinvestment in early childhood education are more obvious during the pandemic. Nancy Jost, director of early childhood for West Central Initiative, has seen this problem firsthand, “COVID didn’t change anything,” she said, “it just exacerbated the problem we already had.”
The staffing crisis in early childhood education is not just a national issue that is too broad to be relevant in the small rural communities of Otter Tail County. This crisis is having an impact in Fergus Falls and the surrounding area. “Myself and every director of this entire region has been facing a staff shortage like we’ve never ever seen before,” said Sue Stafki, executive director for Children’s Corner Learning Center in Fergus Falls and Perham.
Seventy-nine percent of child care centers in Minnesota are experiencing staffing shortages. This isn’t for lack of interest. When potential workers compare the benefits of working in a child care center as compared to working in other industries they are often faced with choosing between a job they love and a job that pays them a competitive wage. “They can’t make enough,” said Stafki, “even though maybe this is what they really want to do, they still don’t make enough to do it because of the wages.”
Across the nation, child care providers earn so little, they rank in the bottom 2% of all professions. The median wage in Minnesota for early child care workers is $12.06. “It’s sad because, this field, when you look at it, it is clearly one of the most important jobs you could ever think of having,” said Stafki.
She went on to explain that most of the workers in child care are women.
“So now we have women doing very hard jobs, you know, trying to make a living … when you cannot pay what they could make if they walked across the street and worked at the Cenex gas station,” she explained. “And that’s the truth of it.”
Many providers want to offer their staff higher wages, but child care centers have been placed in an impossible situation. Nationally, staffing takes up at least 50-60% of a child care center’s budget. For Stafki, staffing makes up 70% of her budget “at least,” sometimes more. “That is always pretty much the norm,” she said. This leaves almost no wiggle room for cutting costs elsewhere in order to offer better pay.
Additionally, charging parents more is not a legitimate solution. Parents are already paying a national average of $10,000 a year for center-based care for one child. Raising prices would drive parents away and would leave child care only as an option for the wealthy few who could afford it.
Stafki did recently raise tuition at Children’s Corner and increased wages for her staff. “We still can not compete with McDonald’s, Cenex gas station, you name it,” she said, “We still can’t compete.” While the workforce shortage in a restaurant or retail space may mean a limited menu or a frustratingly long wait in line, a workforce shortage in child care means a jeopardized foundation for the academic, social and emotional success of the future generation.
“We are teachers,” Stafki affirmed, “All child care providers are teachers. Every day we teach children something, every day.” Teachers at Children’s Corner do lesson plans, curriculum planning, present lessons to children, and “are there for everything they need; they meet their every need. All day long.”
Children’s Corner also shares the building with Otter Preschool staff.
“My staff's wages aren’t even close to comparing to what they can pay, because they are a public school,” Stafki explained. “And I don’t begrudge them, they are making what they’re worth. But, I think my staff should be making what they’re worth too.”
All of this is another way to say that the United States, including Otter Tail County, has found itself with a problem.
“(This) isn’t just a pandemic crisis issue, this issue has been here forever,” explained Stafki, “It’s just been ignored until now. Because all of a sudden, during the pandemic, people realized child care was actually important.”
Stafki says she moved to the new, larger building to respond to a community need in Otter Tail County.
“For 15 years I’ve been going to meetings in this community and everything I heard was that there’s not enough child care, there’s not enough. I mean we’ve heard it for years here. We moved out here to respond to the community need,” she said, “but, now we’re out here, and I’ve got empty rooms that are closed because I don’t have enough staff to open them.”
The Treasury Department recently stated that investments in child care thus far are “insufficient,” and that “the United States invests woefully little in early childhood education and care.” The United States, out of all the developed countries in the world, ranks near the bottom in regards to investing in early childhood education. “We’re the richest country in the world,” says Jost, “I think we can figure this out.”
The United States came extremely close to funding early childhood education 50 years ago with a bipartisan bill establishing universal child care. The Comprehensive Child Development Act, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, was passed by both the house and senate but was then vetoed by President Richard Nixon.
“Fifty years later, our chance is here again to have our country value this field as much as it should be, to compensate this field as much as it should be,” said Jost. “We are just at a precipice.”
Stafki agrees, “If they [the government] are going to fund the education of children, they should start at zero. That’s where education starts. The most critical years of a child's life are zero to 5, with zero to 3 being the most critical because of their brain development.”
There are some additional creative solutions that can take place regionally and locally. Recently, M State announced it would be partnering with local high schools to give students the opportunity to earn college credits toward a degree in early childhood. This option gives students the opportunity to have a partial certificate complete by the time they graduate from high school, with no cost to them. It’s an opportunity for interested students to save on college expenses while gaining hands-on experience working in child care.
Another solution could be offered by local businesses. “If you don’t have child care for your workforce, where is your workforce going to work?” asked Stafki. “They’re not going to.”
Parents who can’t find child care can’t go to work, and Stafki says that she has a waitlist for Children’s Corner about a page long, “easily.” She explained that there is a lot of space for community businesses to invest in child care for their community, “We are one of the largest direct ties to economic development in a community,” she said. “If you have large businesses … one of the biggest things that you can do for a town to grow economically is to make sure you have enough child care.”
The workforce shortage in early childhood education is a crisis affecting the social and economic future of the country and this county. But, Jost remains hopeful, “If this is a priority for us,” she said, “if children are a priority for us, there is a way to figure out how we can make this work.”