Hard, Low-Paid, Vital Child Care Jobs Find Few Takers

Day care providers say they can’t pay workers more while staying affordable

Nursery school teacher with students
•••

Yellow Dog Productions

All across the country, child care workers are quitting their jobs, ignoring help-wanted ads, and ghosting interviewers, their bosses say. And it’s not because they don’t want to work, but because they are taking up better-paid careers, like twirling a sign by the highway. 

Key Takeaways

  • Child care, a typically low-paid industry, is struggling to recruit and retain qualified workers. There were 126,700 fewer child care workers in August than before the pandemic hit.
  • Providers say they’ve raised wages, but can’t pay too much since they would have to pass the cost on to families who can barely afford it already.
  • President Joe Biden has proposed federal assistance to families and child care workers as part of his budget plan for next year.

“Pre-pandemic, we might have gotten 10 applicants per job. Now we are lucky if we get one applicant,” said Zakiyyah Boone, interim CEO at Wonderspring, a nonprofit early education organization with five locations in the Philadelphia area. “We are even luckier if that one applicant shows up to the interview as opposed to being a no-call no-show. And we consider ourselves having hit the jackpot if we have someone show up to an interview who is qualified and actually accepts the job.”

In the last month, Wonderspring has “hit the jackpot” seven times, only to go broke again when none of the prospects were willing to move on to the next step, an extensive background check. That’s left the centers with 29 job vacancies and 200 kids on a waiting list for day care. 

Boone can understand why: “It’s a low wage job that is very hard work,” she says.

The story is the same all across the country. The child care industry was decimated when the pandemic hit, losing 35% of its workforce, and it has yet to fully recover. Child care providers had 126,700 fewer workers in August than before the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The shortage of workers has had a ripple effect throughout the economy, keeping people with young children from taking jobs and prompting calls from the Biden administration for more federal support for the child care system.

Low Pay, Long Wait Lists

The primary reason child care centers nationwide are short-staffed is low pay, according to a survey of 7,500 providers released last month by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit representing child care and early education providers. In Pennsylvania, where Wonderspring is located, 79% of providers said they had staffing shortages, with 78% identifying low pay as their main recruiting challenge.

“I think the staffing crisis has always been a problem, it’s just really been compounded by the pandemic,” said Nicole Fetherman, executive director at LifeSpan School and Day Care, a child care provider in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, with three locations.

Not only are many of her entry-level workers going to positions in other industries, but trained teachers are leaving for better-paying jobs at public schools. And on top of the wage issue, she said, fear of contracting COVID-19 is keeping people from taking up child care work. The result is mandatory overtime for the remaining staff, and long waiting lists for children. 

It’s little wonder that child care centers are having a hard time competing in a labor market where workers are in high demand and wages have been rising rapidly. Nationwide, child care workers earned a median wage of $12.24 an hour in 2020 compared with a median of $20.17 for all types of workers.

And those low-paid jobs sometimes require college degrees, said Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association. Group supervisors, for example, are required by state law to have at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education or a similar field, and that’s for someone with at least two years of experience. An applicant with only one year of experience must have a bachelor’s degree for the same job.

Out of Options

“If you can go to Target and make $15 an hour and at the end of your shift, you leave everything at the door, why work in child care, which is strenuous, emotionally and physically?” said Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association. It gets worse. “Down the street from me in front of the Deloitte office building is a placard stuck in the dirt that says somebody is looking for card holders—the guys that twirl signs by the side of the road—paying $15 an hour.” 

It’s not that child care providers aren’t trying. To attract new recruits and hold on to existing staff, Lynette Galante, vice president of the New Jersey Child Care Association and owner of two centers in New Jersey, said she has hiked starting wages $4 to $5 an hour, to $14 to $16, depending on the position. But she still has trouble recruiting. She’s found herself teaching classes at one of her centers several times a week lately, to cover when staff teachers are out. 

“We’re out of options, and we have to do whatever we can to make it work,” she said.

Wonderspring has also raised its starting pay, to $13 an hour, and the organization is offering signing bonuses up to $2,000, Boone said. Still, some workers are quitting at lunchtime after they’ve checked their phones: More lucrative offers are luring them away. 

Boone says she would like to raise wages more, but then she would be forced to increase how much she charges families to look after their children, and some of them can barely afford the cost already. 

Aiming for Affordability

Indeed, many families are struggling to pay for child care, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Treasury, which showed that child care ate up 13% of family income for households with a child under 5 who paid for child care—an amount the report said was unaffordable for most families. 

Personnel accounts for about 80% of the budget of a typical child care facility, according to one recent study, so raising wages means raising prices, Barber said.

“Some federal support is going to be necessary to really save child care in many ways, because parents can’t pay the true cost of care if we’re going to bring wages up to a more commensurate level,” Fetherman said. 

President Joe Biden has reached the same conclusion. He’s pressing Congress to pass legislation to fund universal pre-K education and better wages for child care workers, at least $15 an hour, and to cap child care costs at 7% of income for low- and middle-income families. Democratic lawmakers are currently drafting the legislation, which they hope to pass this year as part of a $3.5 trillion spending plan.

“It’s a crisis,” said Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association. “I have talked to people all over the United States as the director of NCCA, and I haven’t talked to anyone that is not in dire straits.”

Have a question, comment, or story to share? You can reach Diccon at dhyatt@thebalance.com.