Childcare is a critical job, with a critical worker shortage in Michigan
- There’s a shortage of an estimated 9,000 childcare workers in Michigan
- Childcare worker shortages have an outsized impact on the economy compared to wages
- The state has invested in education incentives to lure workers to enter and stay in child care jobs
La Tonya Glover needs to hire a childcare worker. The families who bring their young children to her Bright Beginnings Child Care in Detroit are counting on her.
But Glover, who has operated a licensed childcare business in her home since 2010, has run into a problem tougher to negotiate than a two-year-old’s tantrum: a lack of workers.
“I’ve tried everything,” said Glover, whose home is licensed to care for 14 children, but only when she has the required minimum number of workers. “I’ve tried Indeed (the online jobs site), word of mouth. I’ve had a few phone interviews, but they don’t show up for in-person interviews. It’s a strain.”
There are about 28,000 childcare workers in Michigan, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of 2022, there were another 9,000 vacancies for childcare educators and aides according to data collected by LARA. That’s one in four positions vacant in a job critical in allowing Michigan parents with young children to go to work.
Industry experts told Bridge they don’t believe the childcare worker crisis has improved since last year.
It’s enough to make Glover worry about whether she can continue to keep her doors open.
“There’s always going to be families with children who need care,” Glover said in a whisper during a telephone interview, during nap time at her home childcare center. “But you have to look at how sustainable it is” as a business.
Many industries in Michigan are struggling to find workers, but few professions have a greater domino effect through the economy than childcare work. A shortage of childcare workers often means fewer childcare slots available for families, because the state sets minimum standards for the number of children who can be supervised by one adult. When families can’t find childcare, parents may be forced to quit jobs or be unable to accept positions because they have to stay home with their preschool children, exacerbating the state’s worker vacancy crisis.
In a state with an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent in July, the lowest jobless rate since 2000, potential workers have plenty of options. That’s good for workers, but an added challenge for the childcare industry, where employees are among the lowest paid workers in the state, with an average wage of $13.45 an hour.
“I just saw a sign at (a metro Detroit) Mcdonald’s for $20 an hour,” said Jared Rodriguez, executive director of the Childcare Providers Association of Michigan. “It’s hard to compete in this environment for the employees everyone wants.”
Childcare providers employ two types of workers: lead childcare workers must have a two- or four-year degree or certificate in a field related to child development, or be pursuing a relevant certificate or degree; and childcare aides, who do not have training requirements but must be supervised by someone who is certified.
Many providers have shortages of both kinds of workers.
There were 7,917 licensed childcare providers in Michigan in 2022. Among those that applied for federal stabilization grants that year, 87 percent reported vacancies for childcare staff, and 58 percent for lead caregivers.
Low wages were listed as the top reason for openings, with “lack of applicants” second.
The impact of those openings was far-reaching, according to responses to a workforce survey conducted by the state’s Licensing and Regulatory Agency. Almost seven in 10 said they were accepting fewer children because of staff shortages; 46 percent had longer wait lists, 39 percent had been forced to shorten hours of service.
The results were no surprise to Rodriguez. “Child care is going to be one of these areas that is a hindrance to meeting the workforce needs of the state,” he said.
A similar survey conducted by the Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Institute for Employment Research of 700 childcare providers in southwest Michigan found that 30 percent were operating below licensed capacity of children, with 70 percent citing worker shortages as the reason.
“There are child care spots that families need, but because there aren’t enough staff, it’s a big problem,” said Elisabeth Tobia, a consultant with Upjohn and former director of a childcare center in Lansing.
Dana Johnson, executive director of People's Church Preschool in East Lansing, said the center serves about 100 children and there are typically another 100 on the waiting list.
Johnson’s center is fully staffed, but she said she knows many aren’t, adding to the angst of parents searching for care.
“We’ve never had a shortage of people with intelligence and professionalism,” Johnson said. “It’s whether they could afford to do the job.”
Raising wages can help. “I know a lot of centers have increased their wage rates, because they know it’s the number one reason (for staff shortages),” Tobia said. The places that increase wages are able to attract and retain staff.”
But those increased wages mean higher tuition fees for already struggling families.
At Angel Care Preschool and Child Care in Traverse City, childcare workers earn between $18 and $22 an hour. Those wages have helped stabilize the workforce — the center has one opening on a 16-person staff. Executive Director Alicia Swanson told Bridge she interviewed a woman for that opening recently who was currently working in childcare for $12 an hour. “That’s insane,” Swanson said.
The downside of higher wages is that families, many already stretched thin, pay for that increase, Swanson said.
Tuition for five-day care for an infant is $350 a week. Even taking into account holidays and vacations, that’s more than $16,000 a year, close to the cost of tuition and fees at the University of Michigan.
“I honestly don’t know how families do it,” Swanson said.
And yet the demand far exceeds the supply of available child care in Traverse City and around the state. At Swanson’s center there are slots for 22 infants and toddlers (through age 2), and another 150 families on a waiting list.
“We have families call and say, ‘we’re just starting to try to conceive, can we get on your wait list,’” Swanson said.
No easy fix
There aren’t any quick or easy solutions to Michigan’s childcare worker shortage.
The shortage is nationwide, the childcare association’s Rodriguez said. Michigan received $1.4 billion in federal pandemic funding to help prop up the industry, which was used to support providers and subsidize family childcare costs, but that funding has ended.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launched a $23 million program to incentivize the opening of new childcare centers in 2022, along with grants to pay for education costs for people hoping to earn child development certificates and degrees.
Rodriguez said some businesses and local governments are getting into the childcare business to try to ease the shortages. He said officials from a county he declined to name called him recently to inquire about the logistics of licensing a childcare facility for county employees, many of whom were struggling to find care. Some companies, including Western Land Services in Ludington, have established child care centers.
“They’re having to take ownership themselves to create these centers,” Rodriguez said. “We might see a shifting model in the industry.”
Neither shifting models nor free classes solve the problem faced by right now by Detroit childcare provider Glover. She has an opening for what she considers a very important job – a job that pays $12 or $13 an hour.
“There’s a McDonald’s, Burger King and Family Dollar within walking distance of where we are, who are paying $3 more per hour,” Glover said. “Since COVID, I’ve had more children who are nonverbal, who have sensory issues. I need someone with patience.
“When I can make fries or stock shelves for more (money) and not have to think about it, changing dirty diapers is a big ask.”
Michigan workers vacancies
In this occasional series, we examine the scope of critical worker shortages in 2023, from doctors and police officers to math teachers and social workers. To view more stories in this series click here.
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