March 28, 2023

Early Care & Education Media Coverage

La Crosse Early Care & Education Summit Media Coverage

Childcare & Early Education Summit held at Western Technical College in La Crosse
Business leaders, government officials gather to discuss solutions to lack of affordable child care


Solving the childcare crisis will take more than just one organization to bring a solution

State and local leaders discuss solutions for childcare shortages



Jim Wood: Leadership and collaboration are the key to stronger, better Wisconsin

For more than 40 years, Competitive Wisconsin, Inc. (CWI), a non-partisan collaborative organization has been dedicated to identifying and helping public and private sector leaders address the major challenges affecting the quality of life and opportunity in Wisconsin.

In that capacity, CWI has worked with local and state leaders on economic, educational, developmental, rural, employment, and demographic challenges. CWI is now working with leaders across the state to address a major challenge that touches all of these areas and that requires an even more robust collaboration between the public and private sectors. 

The challenge is easy to describe. Wisconsin lacks the workforce and population we need to support and grow our economy, pay for essential public services and secure our future. On nearly any given day in Wisconsin, for example, more than 100,000 jobs openings are going unfilled. And, because the shortages are systemic (e.g., declining birth rates, aging workforce and low to negative in-migration) they can only be addressed in the foreseeable future by keeping the workers we already have and aggressively recruiting significantly more people to live and work in Wisconsin.

Other states face similar challenges, and recruitment and retention of workers has become considerably more competitive. More specifically, the employment marketplace is now a “seller’s” market in which younger workers want good jobs in vibrant communities and employers and community leaders know they cannot recruit the workers they need unless they are competitive when it comes to broadband, housing, early childhood care and education, health care, transportation, quality of life and opportunity, energy, and rural revitalization.

The COVID pandemic exacerbated these challenges; intensified the competition; and left Wisconsin communities struggling to keep up with the competition. Then, in April 2021 local governments in Wisconsin learned that they would be receiving more than $3.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which meant that there would be an opportunity for Wisconsin communities and regions to invest the ARPA funds in strategic improvements that could leverage their existing resources and make Wisconsin more competitive in the pursuit for talent.

Seizing this opportunity will require research, innovation, hard work, enhanced public awareness and, most importantly, leadership and collaboration. CWI is persuaded the parties must not only cooperate with each other, but must also be in agreement regarding the challenges and opportunities being addressed; have identified mutual goals and priorities; and while understanding the need to address the concerns of others when possible, see achieving the goals identified as of paramount importance.

CWI feels strongly that the private sector must engage effectively with this opportunity because we, like local elected officials and other community leaders, understand that vibrant communities are essential to our efforts to recruit and retain workers and grow our local economies.

We have identified three specific areas in which we believe we can be helpful, including: 1) enhancing decision-maker awareness of research and resources relevant to their needs and options; 2) showcasing proven managerial analytical approaches for determining and assessing options; and 3) sharing resources and skill sets with local and regional decision-makers as they plan, act and manage their ARPA investments.

CWI is currently working with leaders from the 7 Rivers Alliance, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Western Technical College, American Family Insurance, Gundersen Health System, Dairyland Power and others on an in-person and virtual action accelerator dedicated to determining and assessing options related to early care and education. CWI is also now developing an action accelerator focused on workforce transportation with leaders from and in the Madison Region Economic Partnership and will be developing collaborations on broadband, housing, health care, energy, community quality of life and opportunity, and rural resurgence in other locations around the state in the weeks ahead.

-- A recent survey found 19 percent of child care centers in La Crosse County are on the verge of closing due to staffing shortages, according to The Parenting Place Executive Director Jodi Widuch.

"It's 372 slots -- that's enormous," she said yesterday during an event focused on child care and early education. It was hosted at the Western Tech's Lunda Center in La Crosse by the 7 Rivers Alliance and Competitive Wisconsin with co-hosts UW-La Crosse, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the tech college.

Widuch explained the March survey found this shortage was linked to low compensation levels and inadequate benefits.

"The point to that is this situation continues to get worse ... there really is urgency to figuring out the workforce and the compensation so that child care centers can fill those open positions," she said.

Panelists said this problem isn't unique to the La Crosse area, noting the shortage in affordable child care options represents a major workforce challenge throughout the state. Widuch and Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, agreed that pay for these workers needs to rise for the industry to stay afloat.

Schmidt said infant care in the state costs about $12,000 per year, which "is not enough to end up paying for the cost of that care" in a child care program.

"The true cost of care needs to be enough to actually compensate the teachers at the level that is commensurate with their education," she said. "Our association pushes to move compensation towards parity with our K-12 schools based on education levels."

Widuch echoed the sentiment, arguing child care worker pay "needs to be in parity with what these professionals can earn in another sector" to keep them onboard.

But at the same time, other panelists said the current cost of child care in some cases is keeping other people -- particularly women -- out of the workforce, as it can make more financial sense for them to take care of their own children.

"It's a very complex issue. It's going to take equally complex solutions and a wide variety of them," Widuch said.

Schmidt noted over 80 percent of the child care workforce have education outside of high school and over 55 percent have at least an associate's or bachelor's degree. Workers in at-home family child care programs earn $7.40 per hour after expenses on average, while those at child care centers usually earn between $12 and $13, she said.

While many of these workers stay in the industry for years, Schmidt said over 35 percent of them rely on public assistance and 25 percent of classroom teachers in these programs experience food insecurity due to low wages.

"It is not surprising that 75 percent of child care programs in Wisconsin are in the process of trying to hire people, and if they can't hire people, they have to close classrooms, they have to increase waitlists, they have to reduce hours of operation," she said. "So this is a real tenacious workforce -- they stick around, they're resilient -- but at some point, we hit a breaking point."

Chris Hardie, CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance, said any solutions to the state's child care issues need to start at the local level, pointing to potential partnerships between businesses and child care centers in their communities. He said companies could purchase a certain number of slots each year, guaranteeing income for the centers and helping them to expand.

"They might be right on that cusp of, they can't handle any more kids with existing staff but if they know that they could have four more slots -- or whatever the number is -- they can add more staff," he said. "So there's those kinds of conversations where you can form partnerships with existing child care centers to strengthen the infrastructure we already have."

In hopes of addressing some of the state's early care challenges, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association recently launched a new advocacy initiative called Raising Wisconsin. It's aimed at improving child care infrastructure, supporting the industry's workforce and "investing in optimal child health and well-being," a release shows.

See more on the Raising Wisconsin effort here:

-- Also during yesterday's event, a La Crosse County official and the director of a local child care program differed on how to best spend ARPA dollars to address child care issues.

Brian Fukuda, a community development specialist for the county, discussed a pilot program with the School District of La Crosse that would use some of the county's American Rescue Plan Act allocation to convert classrooms into child care centers for young children.

"The benefits of that is it would take advantage of existing capacities that the district has," he said. "The county funding would be used to make those one-time modifications and renovations to the space to be able to use classroom spaces within schools to offer child care."

Angie Wells, program director for the Coulee Children's Center, questioned why the pilot program would seek to establish a new child care option while programs like hers are struggling to hire workers.

"Why spend all [those] dollars to renovate when there's already existing programs that have those spaces available that you don't have to renovate and buy new materials for?" she asked, noting resources like books and furniture likely represent a significant portion of the spending.

As an alternative, she suggested partnering with "programs already out there that are struggling to find those staff."

In response, Fukuda noted the pilot program is meant to develop "long-term partnerships, bringing new revenue streams and new players" into the market. He said existing providers are "doing incredible work," but added "without new revenue streams, it's just not working. It's a broken economic model."

While he conceded subsidizing wages in the industry "needs to be a top priority," he said using one-time ARPA funding to do so can't be a long-term solution.

"When those ARPA funds run out, and we've used those funds to subsidize wages for existing child care providers, what happens in year four?" he said. "Do those wages have to go back to, you know, what they're making now? That's going to completely gut the industry."

-- A representative for Gundersen Health System says the La Crosse-based care provider is losing doctors due to a lack of child care options in the area.

Nathan Franklin, director of external affairs for the health system, highlighted this issue yesterday at the event in La Crosse.

"I've only been with Gundersen about two years, and I can no longer count on two hands the number of talented, very promising young professional women -- in all cases -- who have left our organization because they couldn't find child care, or the child care they could find just erased their salary," Franklin said.

He noted the shortage of affordable child care options is affecting organizations at all levels. In Gundersen's case, that ranges from frontline workers and support staff to physicians and other professionals, he said.

"If we don't start to wrap our brains and our hands around this issue now, our next generation of leaders is going to be dealing with this issue in spades," he said.

This problem is compounded by demographic changes in the health care workforce, panelists at yesterday's event said.

Heather Schimmers, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer for the health system, pointed to the "silver tsunami" phenomenon, noting many older professionals are retiring early.

"Before 2020 ... we had a very nice, even split in the nursing profession of younger nurses joining the workforce and what I like to call our wisdom nurses," she said. "Those are those nurses that have been committed to the profession that are just strong and are just bringing up this younger workforce. That has completely flipped."

Now, she said a larger portion of registered nurses at the health system are between the ages of 25 and 40.

"Think about what we're talking about today. I have to recruit those people. I have to get them to this community," she said. "I have 190 acute care RN openings right now in La Crosse."

InsideWis: Easing early childhood education woes part of solving worker shortage

Last modified on Friday, 13 May 2022 17:00
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