SILVER BAY, Minn. – Before this year, a child care center was a new concept for Silver Bay.
The town of 1,700 about 55 north of Duluth, Minnesota, had one or two home day cares, and once had a day care in a church basement. Parents largely depended on their family members or friends to take care of their children so they could go to work.
Parents now have another option. Little Mariners Child Care Center opened in January. The center has the licensed capacity to care for 15 infants, 21 toddlers and 16 preschoolers. The new center dramatically reduced local demand and was a welcome reprieve as COVID-19 roiled the industry.
But even the pandemic’s grip on the economy loosens, a new challenge is cropping up for child care professionals at the new facility, and for teachers, across the region: an apparent labor shortage.
Kerissa Graden, child care coordinator for the Lake Superior School District, is in charge of Little Mariners. She said that despite the large capacity at the center, she and her seven employees – many of whom work part time – are limited to caring for four infants, six toddlers and six preschoolers. There are 12 children on their waitlist.
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“That’s just devastating,” Graden said. “I feel like child care and the workforce more broadly are so interconnected. Like the families that are on our waitlist right now: do they have alternative care? Do they have family members that are able to take care of their kids so they can go to work? Or are they stuck not working because they don’t have anything?”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child day care workers took a hard hit as the pandemic began, with the national industry shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs in early 2020. That number quickly recovered – but still lags pre-pandemic levels.
Shortage impact spreads from family to economy
Kay Larson heads the early childhood division at North Dakota’s Department of Human Services. She points out that while state child care capacity appears to have gone up – from 32,283 slots for children in 2019 to 33,510 this year – the increase masks that not all child care centers are running at full capacity, sometimes due to staffing shortages.
Larson says to think of this like a pool with a capacity of 100 people – but without enough lifeguards on duty to actually watch 100 people.
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“(Providers) have to make choices about what they’re going to operate, how many families they can serve. They may have to let families go that they’re currently serving,” she said.
The North Dakota Labor Market Information Center reported 360 job openings in November for personal care and service workers, an increase of 171 openings since November 2020.
The same labor market is tight in Minnesota, too. The child care industry has a 17% vacancy rate across the state, Minnesota’s state Department of Employment and Economic Development reported, with 1,519 job vacancies not including supervisors in the second quarter of 2021.
Graden believes the pandemic has caused people to reevaluate what they want in a job, which in many cases is not something stressful with long hours – like child care. The field already had high turnover rates before the pandemic.
“People with early childhood degrees or who want to work in the field are working in other towns,” Graden said. “They’re working in Two Harbors or Duluth. They’re not here anymore because there hasn’t been a place.”
“The child care shortage has a rippling-out effect from families and children themselves into the labor market and economy at large,” said Carson Gorecki, Northeast regional analyst for Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. “It manifests in lost productivity, millions in lost earnings in tax revenue, but it also impacts the future success of the children themselves.”
‘Closer to normal’
A shortage in child care workers isn’t the only job shortage directly affecting families and spreading throughout the economy. Teachers are also in short supply.
Minnesota has 3,889 job openings for all teachers – preschool, elementary, middle, secondary and special education positions, plus 1,333 openings for other teachers and instructors, according to MN DEED. North Dakota’s Labor Market Information Center reported 882 openings in educational services this November, compared to 517 in November 2020.
“Subs are so hard to find right now, even though we’re in a building full of teachers,” Graden said. “We can’t get anybody to come in and leave their class. They’re all covering each others’ classes as it is.”
Denise Sprecht, president of Education Minnesota, said it’s difficult for teachers across the state: “They’re all just kind of hanging on. That’s what it feels like. They’re taking one step at a time, one day at a time, and just hanging on.”
122621.N.FNS.EDCHILDCAREc6 – Little Mariners Daycare and Preschool teacher Cora Carter plays with Declan Stewart, left, and Isla Dugas on Dec. 14, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
That sounds familiar to Melissa Buchhop, who teaches fourth grade at Century Elementary School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She recalled last school year as a brutally intense time for educators, as they juggled students in their classroom with those missing huge swaths of school to quarantine.
“I think it is better than last year, but I think there is still a lot on the teachers’ plates this year,” Buchhop said, expressing hope that soon things might resemble a normal school year again. “I think it depends on who you talk to, too. For some, this year’s going a lot better. For some, they’re finding this year a lot more stressful.”
A late 2020 survey from North Dakota United, the state teachers’ union, found 5% of its respondents planning to retire or leave teaching; another 37% were considering doing the same, and 24% had weighed retiring or leaving before deciding against it (a spokesman for the group says another such survey is expected soon).
“Teachers are working really hard and trying to make the school day the best that we can for our students,” Buchhop said. “Hopefully we continue to move closer and closer to normal.”