Kids for Front

A shortage of appropriate childcare, especially in rural communities, has a huge impact on the available workforce pool. In Dawson County that is currently a big problem.

A report released in June 2019 by the Nebraska Department of Labor reveals some alarming statistics about the state of Nebraska’s workforce. Unfortunately we have experienced a pandemic since then, and the numbers have not gotten any better.

In the labor availability study, more than 73% of Nebraska businesses that reported having difficulty finding workers for a specific job said that not receiving enough applicants was a reason why the search was challenging. The question has to be asked, why are there not enough workers here? And what can we do collectively as a community to change that?

There are a number of agencies across the state that are investigating those questions and working on solutions as we speak - including right here in Gothenburg. Through a partnership with First Five Nebraska and the Council for a Strong America, the Gothenburg Early Childhood Learning Coalition promoted a webinar held on Wednesday, Feb. 24 aimed at presenting information on the correlation between the shortage of available workers and the shortage of available child care.

Many experts agree that child care and housing are two of the primary factors in recruiting and retaining labor. With that in mind, many of the discussions being held on solving the labor shortage in our state and locally include those two topics as well. All seem to agree that there is no quick fix to the problem, and that the work that is being done now will pay off in the future. And it all begins early.

We have been hearing a lot lately about early childhood education. But for those of us who no longer have young children it can be easy to overlook the significance of that piece and just how much it affects the entire community. The bottom line is, parents cannot work if they don’t have child care. And in one way or another that affects us all.

A Quality of Life Survey conducted in Gothenburg last December showed the top two factors that negatively impacted the ability for local employers to hire employees were lack of adequate housing and lack of available child care.

Shortages of available child care and potential employees is not limited to urban areas; it is very much a rural issue as well. Haleigh Rangel, director of Learning Adventures Child Care Center in Lexington, commented during the webinar that she has been contacted by 45 different families in that community who can’t find child care. Those kinds of numbers can have a big effect.

“The very first hurdle in dealing with our workforce issue is child care,” said Mike Jacobson, President and CEO of NebraskaLand Bank in North Platte and one of the webinar panelists. “We need to eliminate obstacles to allow employees to stay focused on their day jobs and not have to worry about their family.”

Matthew Hansen, managing editor at Buffett Early Childhood Institute, shared some striking statistics resulting from a survey conducted by Sen. John Stinner of Gering. Those numbers, which were shared with the Nebraska Legislature, show that Covid has had a detrimental impact on an already weak child care system. More than 51% of the 1,050 parents who responded to Stinner’s survey reported that they had to miss work because of child care issues during the pandemic. Nearly half, 44%, said they had to reduce their work hours because of child care issues. And more than one out of every three Nebraska parents surveyed, 38%, said they don’t have sufficient child care for their needs.

Hansen wrote that business owners who responded to the survey also reported massive challenges stemming from a lack of child care for their employees. Nearly eight out of 10 business owners responding to the survey said they have made changes to employee shifts or schedules because of child care arrangements during Covid. And 71% of employers said their workers have been late, left work, or missed work because of child care problems.

These are far from new problems in Nebraska. Child care providers here operate on the thinnest of profit margins, and often struggle with near-constant turnover tied to the low wages paid to early childhood teachers and providers. Because of a lack of quality child care providers, nearly every Nebraska county lacks the capacity to meet child care demand.

“Standard rates for child care in rural areas is often less than half of what is charged in urban areas,” said Marti Beard, of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. Beard said that capacity is another big issue facing the child care industry. “Providers are reporting waiting lists three times longer than capacity of facilities. 36% of rural Nebraskans live in child care desserts, meaning there are less spots available than needed. This is impacting our local businesses. This is a community growth issue.”

Here in Gothenburg there are currently four licensed full-time child care options, according to GECLC Coordinator Nichole Hetz: Building Blocks, Learning Adventures, Home Swede Home Learning Daycare and Mandy’s Daycare. These four facilities have an actual combined capacity of about 155 kids. Hetz said that typically the waiting list for any of the local child care options is up to a year, though that does fluctuate. Ironically, part of the fluctuation is based on the number of children the provider can take depending upon how many staff members there are. So again, workforce and child care go hand-in-hand.

The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission - at Sen. Stinner’s request - calculated that the state of Nebraska needs to gradually increase its funding of the early childhood system, an increase that, if paired with increased federal funding and private money, could fully fund early childhood in Nebraska in the next decade. Stinner, the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, is attempting to take the first step, sponsoring a bill that would increase early childhood funding in Nebraska by $5 million over the next two years. He has repeatedly expressed a belief that the state can chip away at this problem—that we can and must find a way to better invest in Nebraska’s youngest citizens so that they, their families, and the state itself can prosper.

“This is where the dollars need to be spent - and we need to do this early,” said Mike Jacobson. “It’s a critical problem across the state, especially in rural areas. I can’t stress this enough.”

Contact Ellen Mortensen at ellen@gothenburgleader.com or call 308.537.9498