News from Sarah Lucas and Lake Superior Community Partnership, sharing the U.P. Perspective:
As the summer wears on – or flies by, as the case may be – the impacts of our current labor shortage become more and more inescapable. Employers are trying to get by with less staff, especially for service jobs. There are many reasons for the short supply of workers– but one we return to again and again in economic development is the lack of affordable child care.
Child care hasn’t always been a “mainstream” economic development concern, but it’s always been front and center for working parents. And it’s nearly impossible now to talk about business growth without also considering the workforce – and the childcare that that workforce needs.
Child care shortages were looming in the economic development background for years, but the crisis was accelerated by COVID-19. The U.P. lost 10% of its child care providers during the pandemic; even those that stayed open may have had to reduce their capacity or close periodically for quarantines, making it difficult for parents to return to work even when their kids were enrolled. In January 2021, there were twice as many children in Marquette County as there were daycare slots; availability for infants and toddlers is even more limited. Parents of children with special needs, or those working second and third shifts or weekends, have fewer options all around.
Why? Like industries across the board, child care faces a workforce shortage, exacerbated by wages that are lower than many readily-available service jobs: the median wage for child care workers in the U.P. is $11.30/hr. Raising wages would raise costs for both providers – who struggle with regulatory challenges and thin margins - and parents, many of whom already struggle with the costs. Daycare in Marquette County can cost over $800 per month, per child, which could make it a household’s highest budget expense for families with two or more children. These expenses prevent some parents from returning to work. In fact, childcare has been cited by employers for years as one of the biggest barriers to retaining workers.
The importance of quality child care can’t be understated, particularly when we think about the future of our workforce: early childhood education is critical for brain development, and kids who have quality child care are more likely to be successful in school and their careers.
The urgency of the need is driving some discussions about how employers can play a role. While costs, regulations, and other complexities prevent many employers from offering on-site child care, some educational institutions, like NICE schools and NMU, have established programs or networks that offer options for employees and may act as models for others.
It’s also getting a lot of attention in the policy world right now. The Lake Superior Community Partnership is a part of advocacy efforts, through the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, that have pressed the need for additional childcare resources and regulatory changes with the state. That advocacy has resulted in proposals and programs that will expand resources statewide, including the launch and likely expansion of the MI TriShare program, which spreads childcare costs between the state, employers, and parents. And, the Governor recently announced $104 million of unspent federal child care funds to be used as extra subsidy to child care providers, along with a proposal for $1.4 billion that would impact systems and access across the board.
Local and regional providers and partners like the Great Start Collaborative are central in any of these solutions, particularly for short-term solutions. And at the LSCP, we’re hopeful that these partners, advocacy efforts, policy changes, and resources will improve our options for childcare – and the business environment - in the long-term.