While the national labor force has long since rebounded from the pandemic, the child care sector has lagged behind, experiencing a slow recovery that continues to this day.
In the three years since the arrival of COVID-19, families have struggled to find high-quality, affordable child care for their children. Child care providers have been hard-pressed to find qualified workers to fill their open positions, often because retail and service industry employers have emerged as better-paying competitors. And the early childhood educators who remain in the field have done so despite low wages, rising inflation and high-stress working conditions.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been following the situation — with eyes, especially, on the early care and education workforce, says Katie Hamm, deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the department’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
Since 2020, HHS has been monitoring data from the field, including data that showed a strained workforce. “It felt like the right time for the federal government to have an explicit focus on this — and one that is cross cutting,” Hamm tells EdSurge.
Earlier this month, ACF announced the launch of the National Early Care and Education Workforce Center — the ECE Workforce Center, for short — to support research and technical assistance for states, communities, territories and tribal nations. With a $30 million investment over five years, the center aims to improve conditions for the early care and education workforce, making it a more attractive field to enter, remain and advance in.
The two main goals of the center are increasing compensation, including wages and benefits, and building a diverse, qualified pipeline of future educators.
These two objectives are equally important and inextricably linked, says Elena Montoya, a senior research and policy associate at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley.
“They go hand in hand,” says Montoya. “In order to recruit and retain educators, you have to address compensation. It’s hard to untangle them.”
Hamm elaborates on the interconnectedness of these two critical challenges facing the field.
“We’ve had chronic issues with the early childhood workforce, because of historically low pay which leads to high turnover. It is not a profession that has historically provided a pipeline where you can come in, work your way up, get more responsibility and earn more money over time,” Hamm explains. “So oftentimes what we find in early childhood is that when people get degrees or credentials, they don’t stay in the field. They leave for K-12 or other educational systems that will pay them a fair wage and provide benefits.”
She adds: “This has been a longstanding problem. But the precarity of the early childhood workforce was really disrupted by the pandemic.”
ACF has tapped Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused on children and families, to lead the ECE Workforce Center, in partnership with a number of organizations committed to improving early childhood education, including BUILD Initiative; the CSCCE at Berkeley; ZERO TO THREE; the University of Delaware; and the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Chrishana Lloyd, a research scholar at Child Trends, will be heading up the ECE Workforce Center’s research efforts. Tonya Coston of BUILD Initiative will lead the technical assistance work. Montoya, of the CSCCE, will serve as the bridge between the two.
All three women note that the national ECE Workforce Center will take an equity-focused, strengths-based approach to the work ahead. Lloyd says the equity lens refers to recognizing the fact that the early childhood workforce is overwhelmingly made up of women and disproportionately women of color and immigrants. For the strengths-based element, she says it means showing up with a “can-do” attitude.
“The problems are well established at this point,” Montoya notes. “I think the focus on solutions is really exciting for everybody.”
Lloyd adds: “We hear a lot of doom and gloom: There aren’t enough people in the workforce. They’re not paid enough. There are challenges. But our approach is to try to think about these things in a strengths-based, creative way.”
What that looks like in practice, they say, remains to be seen. But Lloyd has some ideas for where to start, such as “drawing on and digging into places that are doing great and innovative work,” she adds.
Recent wins in Washington, D.C., and New Mexico come to mind for Lloyd. She notes that D.C.’s Pay Equity Fund to improve the compensation of early childhood educators in the district has been widely seen as a success. So, too, has the recent decision by New Mexico voters to guarantee the right to early childhood education in the state constitution. In both cases, nothing changed overnight. The outcomes were the result of many years of effort, advocacy and coalition building, Lloyd notes. That’s the kind of inspiration this field needs — “not an overnight solution, no magic bullet.”
Direct input from early childhood educators is also part of the approach. The center is developing an “early educator leadership board,” which will provide a channel for educators to give feedback on the center’s activities. And a fellowship program for policy and research will also incorporate educator voice. Both are efforts to ensure the center’s work “remains educator centric,” Montoya explains.
With $30 million of funding and five years’ time, it’s unlikely the new center will find a cure for all that ails the field. But by learning from states, communities, territories and tribes, and looking at ways to restructure budgets and redirect funding, those involved expect to see incremental but meaningful outcomes.
“This isn’t a problem that was created overnight or that we’re going to solve overnight,” says Hamm. “But our goal is to really take the resources — financial and otherwise — that we have and really target it at this problem to come up with solutions.”
Plus, the creation of the center is itself a victory for the early childhood workforce, says Montoya of the CSCCE.
“It’s really thrilling that HHS is investing in the center, because it means leadership is recognizing the impossible conditions of early educators,” she says. “The fact that the center was proposed and exists is exciting.”
Hamm echoes the sentiment, noting that this center is the first of its kind for the U.S. government.
“When I think about the early childhood workforce and everything they did during the pandemic — really serving on the front lines, but not getting the attention they deserved — I’m just excited that we can do … this thing that will hopefully make their lives better.”