Worker shortage rocks New Hampshire childcare industry amid record demand

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Two children enjoy the swings at a Merrimack Valley Day Care facility. (Courtesy photo)

Staff shortages are hamstringing childcare businesses just as their services are in high demand as the pandemic wanes, the tourist season takes off, bosses pressure workers to return to the office and the state cuts supplemental federal benefits to force the unemployed back to work.

Child care is viewed as essential in fostering a plentiful workforce, but there haven’t been enough employees for the notoriously underpaid industry.

“We are the workforce behind the workforce,” said Marianne Barter, executive director of Merrimack Valley Day Care Services.

“When we can’t run to capacity, that means other people can’t go to work. The ripple effect is enormous. For every preschool teacher I can’t hire, that’s 12 children I can’t serve and 24 parents wanting to go to work. One hire affects a whole lot of families.”

She would like to hire six additional instructors, but licensing, certification and training requirements narrow the applicant pool. Meanwhile, other job opportunities abound. given that the state’s unemployment rate of 2.8% is tied for lowest in the nation.

This all leaves parents scrambling.

“We have people calling us up crying, offering us money for spaces – people who are desperate,” Barter said.

Her nonprofit organization serves low- to moderate-income families who often have no other place to find affordable child care. She said the waiting list is as long as she’s seen in 20 years.

“We’ve always had a mission of serving the state Division of Children, Youth and Families system, foster care or protective care, and for the first time we are wait-listing those children,” she said.

Barter thinks the high demand is also partially fueled by many new people who moved to New Hampshire during the pandemic.

Shortages abound

Jake Leon, a spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Department, said that as of June 1, there were 45,976 licensed or allowable childcare spaces in 830 programs across the state, compared to 891 programs offering 46,000 slots in September 2019, before the pandemic.

“Shortages vary by a number of factors – a child’s age and geographic area, timing and availability, guidelines during the pandemic on smaller group sizes,” he said. “Infant and toddler care has been inherently in short supply due to the lower child-to-teacher ratio along with the intensive skilled care required.

“This has made finding the ‘right caregiver’ a challenging match, even before Covid.

Traditionally, family childcare providers and licensed-exempt providers have filled the gap in available infant/toddler slots and others. However, the number of family childcare providers has been dropping over the past several years as the economy improved.”

Before the pandemic, there were 54,019 children under 6 needing care and 32,884 licensed childcare slots, leaving a gap of 21,135 children, according to a report submitted to the state by EConsult Solutions and the National Center for Children in Poverty.

In 2019, average annual costs for center-based child care in New Hampshire ranged from nearly $25,000 in Rockingham County to $17,253 in Coos County.

The average annual salary for childcare workers in 2019, $25,200, was less than half the statewide average income.

Retaining employees

Jackie Cowell, executive director of nonprofit Early Learning NH, said the childcare industry is not only having trouble finding new employees, but in some cases is encountering difficulty retaining existing workers.

“Longstanding, terrific teachers are going to go away for summer work in the tourism industry, where pay can be twice as much and there could be bonuses,” she said. “When you see the face of kids when a teacher is leaving, that’s not just turnover, that’s loss of continuity of care.”

Higher wages could bolster retainment and recruitment, but child care is already expensive, and there is a limit to what parents can pay, she said.

“The bulk of the money that supports child care comes from working parents who are starting out in their careers,” Cowell said. “Maybe they have a baby and a 4-year-old. They could be spending half of their money on child care alone.”

Some childcare operators are between a rock and a hard place.

“Either you charge more than parents can afford, or you pay teachers lower wages,” Cowell said. “There’s only one place to go, and that’s raising rates and we don’t want to do that.

“This is kind of like a neighborhood. It’s more than a business. Kids have friends. Parents have friends. Having to leave because you can’t afford it is really tough.”

Charging more

Chris Emond, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, said that in order to cover rising labor and other costs, the industry really has no alternative to raising rates.

Meanwhile, some parents are nearing their wits’ end.

“We get phone calls from people who say, ‘I have to go back to work on July 1 and I’m on the waiting list,’” Emond said. “They’re panicking. The boss is telling them, ‘The pandemic is over and you have to go back to work.’ And for many people it’s just not possible to work from home.”

His organization has 300 childcare slots and 145 children on waiting lists.

He said the industry has been facing major pressure for quite a while.

“Some people in the field were underpaid and tired anyway,” he said. “Some people were closing in on retirement age and said, ‘I’m getting out of the field.’”

“The other issue is that we don’t have a good pipeline any more.”

Building a workforce

He would like to see a childcare curriculum in high schools that could lead to internships, community college certifications and a path forward for an enhanced childcare labor force.

“In this way, it’s no different than building or construction apprentice programs,” Emond said. “If we don’t have these programs, lo and behold there aren’t enough carpenters or electricians.”

He added that “you can’t just walk in the door and start working with kids. People think it’s easy because they raise their own kids, but we think of this as a career and not babysitting. You need to be aware of developmental stages and be able to deal well with the public.”

He said he has seen two proposals to help with childcare labor shortages. One calls for the state to supplement childcare worker income by $5 an hour. The other would be for the state to cover the costs of childcare services for the childcare workers themselves.
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