Child Care Worker

Opinion: There’s a massive child care shortage, and it’s draining the workforce. Here’s how we can fix it.

'We must do far more to better support child care professionals – and that includes reimagining how we prepare individuals for working in one of the most vital vocations in the country.'

From Tyson Foods to Marriott to Dollywood, more and more companies are investing in on-site child care services for their workers. While still in the minority, the growing number of workplaces offering child care as a benefit is striking. According to Best Place for Working Parents, a network of businesses aiming to foster family-friendly workplace policies, nearly 11% of the network’s 1,700 members now provide on-site child care. That’s up from 5.5% just three years ago.

For many companies, the COVID-19 pandemic was a harsh lesson in just how critical child care is to the workforce. As schools and centers shut down across the United States, working parents scrambled to provide care for their children. Millions of women were forced to leave their jobs. In the years since, workplace absences related to lack of child care have hit a record high, with as many as 100,000 people staying home each month. Last year, this accounted for $122 billion in lost revenue, productivity, and earnings.

Amy Smith, chief learning officer, StraighterLine (Photo: StraighterLine)

Nearly 16,000 child care programs never reopened, and licensed child care providers are now only able to accommodate 23% of the country’s children and infants. At the heart of the challenge is a worker shortage.

Between February 2020 and the end of 2022, the industry lost 100,000 workers. To solve our child care crisis, we need to close this widening gap. And that requires reimagining child care education and training to provide greater support for this crucial but greatly undervalued workforce. 

Child care professionals are among the worst paid in any industry. With an average hourly wage of roughly $13 per hour, child care professionals are paid less than half the rate of kindergarten teachers. Women of color are paid even less, despite making up a disproportionate share of the workforce.

Thanks to the woefully low wages child care professionals receive – and the fact that many of them come from disadvantaged communities to begin with – they are twice as likely to live in poverty than the average U.S. worker. Compared to K-12 teachers, they are 7.7 times more likely to be living in poverty. 

In recent months lawmakers and President Biden have worked to expand access to high-quality child care for families, lower the cost of care, and increase support for child care professionals. While the industry desperately needs these changes at the policy level, it will take a multifaceted approach to address the many root causes of the workforce shortage.

There is no solution to our child care crisis that does not include increasing pay. At the same time, we need to ensure that education and training programs for child care professionals reflect the current, often difficult, realities of the industry. 

College enrollment in early childhood education programs is declining. According to a survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), almost two-thirds of such programs have experienced drops in enrollment. Some colleges and universities are now shutting down their programs outright, citing dwindling enrollment. The hard truth is most programs are increasingly out of step with the students they aim to serve. 

Many of these learners have to work while they pursue their education; some are even working in child care already. Prospective and current child care professionals need programs they can easily fit around their busy schedules. They need programs that are as flexible as they are low-cost.

Online learning options, for instance, allow students to access lectures and complete coursework wherever and whenever it makes the most sense for them. Cost-effective micro-credentials, stackable credentials, and other learn-and-earn models are also beneficial, permitting individuals to simultaneously increase their educational attainment and wages.

These approaches meet workers where they are, providing the current and future child care workforce with incremental learning opportunities that incentivize professional development and spur economic advancement. 

Consider National University, which recently partnered with the National Head Start Association to redesign learning pathways for students interested in early childhood learning. The new initiative consists of five stackable certificates that provide learners with a flexible way of earning a bachelor’s degree while working in the field. Importantly, the low-cost program is paired with scaffolded academic support, as well as scholarships for Pell-grant-eligible students. 

Child care providers are also working to provide professional development opportunities designed around the needs, aspirations, and lives of the professionals they employ. Big Blue Marble Academy, for example, now offers scholarship funds to its employees as a company benefit. Called the BBMA Pathways Program, the initiative is designed to encourage child care professionals to enroll in flexible online courses and pursue a Child Development Associate certification or a college degree.

Through programs like this, child care providers can attract new talent while directly investing in the next generation of lead teachers and administrators. Child care is the bedrock on which a sustainable and equitable workforce is built.

We must do far more to better support child care professionals – and that includes reimagining how we prepare individuals for working in one of the most vital vocations in the country. Only then can we build a stronger, more robust system of child care that gets all parents back to work.

Amy Smith is the chief learning officer at StraighterLine, which partners with universities and employers to provide online courses that help learners earn college credit and meet their professional career goals.