Town hall seeks solutions to child care issues
By Garrett Neese
HOUGHTON — More than 1,300 children in Houghton County are under 5 with both parents working. But licensed child care providers only have 300 slots.
Overcoming that obstacle and many others was discussed at a child care town hall the Copper Country Great Start Collaborative held in conjunction with First Children’s Finance at Michigan Technological University Wednesday.
The Copper Country Great Start Collaborative is participating in First Children’s Finance’s Rural Child Care Innovation Program (RCCIP) to help build a plan to increase the community’s capacity for early childhood care and education opportunities. RCCIP is a community engagement process
designed to address the challenges of childcare in rural America.
The program is part of a state grant the Great Start Collaborative applied for in November to get assistance in developing an action plan to improve access to child care.
“Early childhood care and education is the driving factor of economic development for the community, school readiness and family well-being,” said Iola Brubaker, director of the Copper Country Great Start Collaborative. “And if we solve this one issue by providing high-quality, early childhood programs and services, not just child care, then our life, our long-term outcomes for the Copper Country improve. I often say the Copper Country is a great place to live and raise a family. And it truly is, but this will make it even better.”
First Children’s Finance, a group aimed at addressing business and finance needs of childcare, is assisting in a community-driven process to identify the area’s child care needs and ways to address them.
Houghton is one of six communities — and the only one in the Upper Peninsula — picked from among 30 applicants for the program.
“The application was impeccable, they had a strong core team, they had a clear purpose, they understood their need and their data … “ said James Henderson, Michigan director for First Children’s Finance. “And they were willing to put the time and the energy in to even get to where we are today.”
First Children’s Finance helped with analyzing strategic data and the supply-demand gap, as well as setting up training and meetings such as Wednesday’s town hall. In advance, stakeholders — including parents, child care centers and employers — had filled out surveys and engaged in focus groups.
Brubaker was struck by how big an impact child care issues had on families. Fifty-three percent of families surveyed had said child care affected their family planning, Brubaker said. Waitlists for child care locally can reach up to two years.
“I talked to one parent who literally planned her second child around when she thought she could get that child into child care,” she said. “And then I talked to another parent who left her career because she couldn’t get care.”
Those issues have come up throughout the workforce. Every employer Brubaker talked to has singled out the lack of available child care as one of the biggest hurdles to finding and retaining employees. Human resources departments at Michigan Tech and the local hospitals have said prospective employees have turned down offers because they couldn’t find child care, Brubaker said.
Nearly half the parents surveyed said they had missed work sometime in the past year because they couldn’t find someone to watch their child. Over the same time period, nearly 40% reported being late, unable to work overtime or had hampered their productivity.
The high cost of child care is also a burden, Brubaker said. The average cost of child care is $640 a month — more than Brubaker’s house payment.
“It’s unreasonable for a family to spend 35% to 50% of their income to put their children in child care,” she said. “You can’t meet all your other basic needs if that much is going to child care.”
Friday’s town hall drew representatives from parents, child care, education, business and government. After presentations from Brubaker and Henderson, the tables did small group exercises to answer questions such as how to support existing child care and how to add slots.
The workforce development group noted some positives, such as Michigan Works developing an internship program with BHK, or the training through the Copper Country Intermediate School District’s career and technical education.
The “elephant in the room” is coming up with the wages that will attract candidates, Hancock Public Schools Superintendent Steve Patchin said.
“We’re not just competing against other schools, we’re competing against every single industry that operates here, whether it’s McDonald’s, Michigan Tech or wherever,” he said.
The facilities group suggested a centrally located building where each classroom could be licensed separately, but neighbors or floating substitutes could be called upon to help as needed.
Brubaker was excited by the ideas brought up Wednesday, as well as the ones suggested to her outside the town hall.
From here, Brubaker said, next steps involve looking at the data gathered, and set “realistic, timely goals” for the community in a community action plan.
“We’re going to look at the things that are the most impactful and the easiest to obtain first, and we’ll get some of the longer-term things that have huge impact but might be more challenging,” she said.
Once the top needs have been identified, First Children’s Finance will use its resources and connections with the state to help with the execution of the action plan, Henderson said.
“We’re hearing some things that are bubbling up, whether it’s staffing needs, maybe a new center, or maybe expanding slots, or licensing or training,” he said.
When the goals are in place, the real work of reaching them begins. It will take a community-wide effort, Brubaker said.
“A thousand slots,” she said. “No one organization or individual can come up with a thousand new child care slots. It’s going to take a whole community.”