In early September, Excel by Eight partnered with the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Arkansas Asset Funders Network to host a roundtable discussion on “Child Care and the Economy.” The event featured business and industry leaders from across the state who shared insights and discussed opportunities to support child care for the current and future workforce.

Jill Wilson, executive director of two child care centers in Mountain Home, and Garrett Dolan, senior manager of corporate social responsibility at Tyson Foods, served on a panel moderated by Roby Brock, editor-in-chief and host of Talk Business and Politics. The panelists discussed the challenges facing employers and child care providers in Arkansas, including quality of care, workforce, availability, and affordability.

Related: Finding Solutions to Child Care Concerns (KATV News)

Wilson is a long-time educator, having worked as both a public school teacher and piano instructor. After the birth of her child, Wilson began working at the child care center where her daughter attended. She eventually purchased the location and now owns two centers in Mountain Home – Open Arms Learning Center and Noah’s Ark Preschool – which are licensed to care for 300 children between them. Wilson said to enhance the quality of care, her centers limit enrollment to 200 students, a lesson she learned during the pandemic.

“One thing that COVID-19 impacted was having smaller class sizes,” Wilson said. “Having fewer students per teacher enhances the quality of care, but as a result, we don’t have as many slots available because we want to be able to provide high-quality care.

“We have been running a waiting list for quite some time, especially for infant and toddler slots, because there are fewer children per teacher in those classrooms.”

Another factor that impacts the quality of care is recruiting, training, and retaining early childhood educators to staff the center. Because the brain develops faster from birth to age three than any other period in life, infants and toddlers require stimulating learning environments with well-trained, adequately compensated professionals for their future learning, behavior, and health.

Wilson said it takes time to teach new employees responsive caregiving and to train them on the models her centers use in the areas of curriculum, assessments, and referrals for early intervention. Once the employees are trained, however, retaining them presents another challenge.

“In order to be able to keep employees, we have to pour into them,” she said. “It’s difficult for child care centers to compete with places that offer higher compensation, more time off, and other benefits.”

For Tyson Foods, child care is a relatively new issue. Garrett Dolan leads the company’s social infrastructure department, which examines and attempts to solve the social determinants preventing people from being able to work. Similar to the child care sector, the meat-packing industry has a high turnover rate, and the availability and affordability of quality child care is a key reason why.

Related: Child Care Challenges in Rural Arkansas (Excel By Eight)

“Finding child care is a challenge for most working parents and even more so for the shift workers and newcomers to the country who make up a large part of our workforce at Tyson,” Dolan said. “A combination of public investment from state governments and private investment from employers could alleviate both the capital and tuition costs associated with child care.”

Tyson Foods is in the process of building a $5 million child care facility in Humboldt, Tennessee. Additionally, the company will pay a $6,500 subsidy in tuition for every team member who uses the center. Despite this subsidy, it may not be enough for workers whose annual salary averages around $40,000, as child care costs can exceed $11,000 annually.

Dolan said if the government could support the capital investment, businesses like Tyson can provide even more tuition assistance for families. Tax credits for employers who cover all or some of the costs of child care expenses would make this even more of an attractive option for businesses.

“We need to treat child care as a public good, just like we do for roads and K-12 schools,” he said. “Reducing the costs of capital and providing families with tuition support are two ways the public and private sectors can work together to make this happen.”

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