In her 34 years in the child care business, Rhonda Tucker has seen a lot of people turn down jobs because of low pay.
Compensation is one factor in the widespread shortage of child care employees that is putting a particular strain on rural areas.
“Sometimes, people can’t do what they desire or what they feel called to because they have to maintain a household,” said Tucker, who owns Just Kids, a child development center in Danville.
Just Kids, which takes care of children from 6 weeks old through pre-K, is licensed to care for 97 kids. But adequate staffing is critical to fill all those slots, Tucker said, and right now, the facility is capping enrollment at 50.
Tucker currently has 14 employees, and six of those are new hires. But she may still need to add more.
“Maybe two or three more, and we really do need a good substitution list as well,” she said. “We do not have all of our slots filled, and [new hires] will help us progress to that point.”
More than half of child care and early education directors in Virginia are turning families away because of low staffing, according to the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, a statewide nonprofit.
This shortage is causing ripple effects across the economy because child care is essential for many working parents, said Karin Bowles, vice president of strategy for the foundation.
“When you don’t have enough staff, you can’t keep classrooms open,” Bowles said. “You can’t serve as many children and that just exacerbates the existing affordability and access issues.”
To combat this problem, VECF created a program called the Fast Track Initiative, which accelerates training and raises pay for child care employees. It started at the beginning of this year in southeast Virginia and has expanded to the Blue Ridge and Richmond areas, and into parts of Northern Virginia.
VECF is working to expand the Fast Track Initiative into each of its nine “Ready Regions” across the state; Danville and Lynchburg, which are in the Southside Ready Region, are the target of the most recent expansion.
The foundation made Fast Track available to every child care provider in Southside that participates in other VECF programs, which provide assistance such as subsidies and resources.
“There were probably hundreds of providers in Southside that were eligible,” Bowles said. “We did information sessions and provided materials and answered their questions. Then it’s up to the providers to decide whether to participate or not.”
The locations that showed the most interest were Danville and Lynchburg, she said.
To get the word out to providers, VECF relied on more local organizations, like the Center for Early Success. This Danville-based nonprofit works to strengthen early childhood education in the cities of Danville and Lyncburg, as well as 14 counties in Southside.
Tucker said she first heard about Fast Track from the Center for Early Success. Now, Just Kids is participating in the program.
Fast Track will provide pay for new employees while they’re undergoing the four weeks of training, and after that, Just Kids will be responsible for salaries, Tucker said. The program also pays for the training course materials and the cost of marketing for recruiting new employees.
Costs vary in each region, said Bowles, because of geographic differences and regional hiring needs.
VECF gets its funding from a variety of public and private sources, including federal, state, local and individual donors, said Bowles. Most of the funding for the Fast Track Initiative comes from federal sources, like the American Rescue Plan Act and the Preschool Development Grant.
Tucker said Fast Track will also benefit Just Kids by providing the required training needed to produce high-quality employees.
“I felt like it was a good program to bring in new people and give them an opportunity, and it would also relieve some strain and stress on my staff,” Tucker said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”
A desperate need for capacity
Angela Wells, executive director of the Center for Early Success, said that Southside is considered a child care desert.
“We do have long stretches of areas where there are no providers,” Wells said. “We have more children who need a space than we have spaces available in the Danville-Pittsylvania area. And that’s also true for the entire region that we’re serving.”
Veronica Fitzgerald, a case manager for foster care organization Alliance Human Resources, said she’s been struggling to find child care for families in the Danville area.
“I’ve called literally every single child care provider in the city of Danville and there is nothing,” she said. “There’s a waiting list from now until next year in the fall.”
Fitzgerald said she likes the quality of care at Helping Hands, a child care center operated by Danville Community College where students enrolled in the Early Childhood Development program can intern.
But Helping Hands currently has a waitlist across all age groups. There are 18 children waitlisted for infant care, 13 for toddler care, 21 for 2-year-old care, and one for pre-K care, according to Jessica Testerman, Helping Hands program director.
An April report by VECF found that the state’s “existing childcare supply is insufficient.” This is even more true in mostly rural areas like Southside, it found.
The report focused on care for infants and toddlers. It found that there are about 298,000 infants and toddlers in Virginia, and 68% of them, or 203,000, have all available parents in the workforce.
On average in Virginia, “there are 48 infants for every infant-serving site in the state and 45 toddlers for each toddler-serving site,” according to the report.
But in Southside, these numbers are north of 70 and 60, respectively.
“Given that most sites do not serve nearly this many infants and toddlers, more capacity is needed to serve these age groups,” the report said.
Fitzgerald has been specifically looking for care for a foster family with a 4-year-old and an 8-month-old. Most of the providers she’s called have a spot for the older child but not the infant, she said.
She’s been searching since April, she said. After being dissatisfied with previous child care, the foster mother decided to stay home from work for a while to watch over the kids, Fitzgerald said.
“I hope we find something before next month because she goes back to work,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been a big, big issue.”
Through a survey, the report found that availability was the biggest barrier for families who were making do with child care arrangements that weren’t ideal. About 77% of these respondents said there were no spots available in their preferred arrangement.
Another survey targeted families with infants and toddlers that did not have child care but wanted it. Of those respondents, 74% said they could not find affordable care.
While the report mostly focuses on infant and toddler care, accessibility and affordability issues persist across the industry.
There is a large affordability gap between the median household income and the income needed to pay for one year of child care, according to data in the report.
To combat these issues, the report suggests growing the supply of infant and toddler care services and improving affordability across the industry for families.
Part of this includes “building a workforce that is well-trained and compensated,” the report says. These two areas — training and compensation — are the focuses of the Fast Track Initiative.
Improving pay and training
Fast Track is looking to attract new employees to the industry, rather than poaching people from other child care providers, Bowles said.
These new employees will attend four weeks of expedited training, taught by local community college instructors.
Traci Daniel, an assistant professor at Danville Community College, is instructing Danville and Pittsylvania’s Fast Track participants, who began training this fall.
“The course is divided into coursework and on-site training at the child care center,” Daniel said. “The coursework supports what they’re doing in the classroom, and what they’re doing in the classroom also supports the content that they’re learning.”
Right now, Daniel said she has six participants registered for this program. Each will also have a mentor provided through the program.
The training is free to participants, who will also receive DCC credit when they complete the course. Daniel said she hopes participants will return to the college after the four-week training to complete their early-childhood education.
“I would love to get them on board and get them engaged and excited so that they can follow through and complete the other credentials that we have,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll do this and love the learning part. … Hopefully, they’ll feel better equipped and want to take more classes, and then that increases the education of the providers that we have in the area.”
Classroom training for new employees should not only increase staff for local providers, but should also increase the quality of child care they can offer.
Fitzgerald said that she’s run into issues with quality, in addition to accessibility, when looking for care for foster children.
“I’m kind of picky about where I want the kids to go because many of them have been through so much,” Fitzgerald said. “These are the most precious ages to watch them grow and make sure that they’re hitting their milestones. … I can tell the difference between a kid that is learning and the kid that’s just playing all day long.”
The training courses will ensure that new employees are qualified and equipped to work in the demanding industry, Daniel said.
Fast Track also requires new candidates to be paid a competitive wage. Many child care jobs pay about the same as retail or fast food jobs but are much more demanding, said Bowles.
“It’s really hard to recruit and retain child care and early childhood educators because of the low compensation,” she said. “With folks having options to work at Target or in a fast-food restaurant for $2 more an hour, it’s hard to find folks to do this work.”
In Southside, Fast Track requires $15 an hour. That amount is comparable to K-12 teachers in the region, and without Fast Track, it would be a stretch for many child care employers.
The program also provides bonuses at six and 12 months to improve retention, which is a big problem in the industry, she said.
An April report by the University of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Education found that the turnover rate for early childhood teachers in Virginia was 37% between fall 2021 and fall 2022.
“Turnover can destabilize care for children, families, providers, and the economy,” the report said.
Finding quality child care employees has been more of a challenge in recent years, said Daniel, who worked in the industry for years before teaching. The high turnover rate just compounds it, she said.
“Once you do find quality employees, you may lose them in a couple of months, and then you’re back to square one,” Daniel said.
Wells said she hopes that the Fast Track bonuses and community college credits will encourage new talent to stay in the industry.
“We need to give new individuals the professional development that they need in order to stay in the field and potentially be able to continue with education at the college level,” Wells said.
Daniel said that the issues of retention and training aren’t specific to child care. They’re affecting a lot of industries across the country.
“But child care is the ground level of society,” Daniel said. “When it affects child care, it affects families, and then it affects the employers of those families and the education systems and everything. When we don’t have child care from the beginning as a foundation, that’s going to affect our whole societal structure and the whole economy.”
Despite the harrowing situation, Daniel said she’s hopeful about the Fast Track Initiative.
“I don’t see any negatives that could come out of this,” she said. “I only see positives.”