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Labor shortages in childcare create more workforce challenges

Childcare experts believe they need government assistance to bolster low wages in the childcare industry to get people to take care of our kids.

ST. LOUIS — Many basic needs are not being met because of labor shortages.

The childcare industry has long faced challenges with low wages and hiring, but now the pandemic has made it worse. 

If you walk into a given daycare, chances are you'll find empty cribs. 

"We've filled the classroom based on the number of teachers that we have, instead of filling the classroom based on the number of spots that we have," said Kristin Skebo, the executive director of Faith Academy. 

She has three centers across the St. Louis area and is facing teacher shortages at each one.

Daycares and childcare facilities facing teacher shortages leave parents with few options to get to work.

Skebo said she takes calls from parents in total desperation.

"I take those phone calls at least once a day," said Skebo. "I get a phone call from a family who says, 'I've called 10 different places, I'm in an emergency situation!'"

It's the same situation miles away at Urban Sprouts Child Development Center in University City where Ellicia Lanier has even turned down doctors, also calling in desperation.

"We know that there are shortages in the hospital," said Lanier. "It's just heartbreaking. Both ends are not meeting in the middle. We don't have enough teachers, and then that means that there won't be enough health care workers or folks to keep the economy going."

"If you don't have a safe place to take your child, it creates a real access barrier to entering the workforce," said Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis, Inc.

Experts say the childcare industry has been fractured for years because of issues like low wages, and the pandemic just made it worse. The median income of a childcare worker is $12 an hour in the U.S. There are workers making less than that in St. Louis. Although some workers with more education could make a salary in the $40,000 range, though it is not the norm.

Hall said the solution will likely have to come from companies who are willing to become better at meeting the needs of their workers.

"As we get into this new economy, we're gonna have to make strategic investments," said Hall. "The communities that do this right will be the ones that get ahead post-covid to expand the workforce. We have the people, but oftentimes, they face these real barriers, whether it's childcare, transportation, education, or reskilling. Those are the kinds of things Greater St. Louis, Inc. is working on to try to move us forward."

Lanier said while we see help wanted signs through the area, it's more than just people not wanting to fill jobs. 

"I think, 'Is there a shortage? Or are families having to prioritize one parent in the home going to work, and one staying home with the children?'" asked Lanier. 

She believes the solution to equitable childcare will go along with the old adage: it takes a village to raise a child. 

"There is going to have to be a deeper investment from the local, state, and federal level to really bolster the early childhood workforce," said Lanier. 

She recently hosted her first-ever gala to raise money for Urban Sprouts where federal assistance and childcare fees fall short.

Skebo agrees that early childcare teachers need more financial support. Despite raising wages and offering more incentives to her employees, she still struggles with keeping her teacher roster full. Skebo says there is a general struggle with teacher pay overall.

"I think in years past, teachers in early childhood have been looked upon as babysitters," said Lanier. "But I think after being at home with your own children, many people are able to see just how valuable teachers are and how valuable childcare is to our economy."

Another thing to consider is that private daycares are currently responsible for getting children kindergarten-ready. It's one reason why universal pre-K is a hot topic in politics.