The following post was originally written by Rick Neal as an op-ed for Arkansas Money & Politics and published January 11, 2021. The original article can be found here.

Starting at birth, children are constantly learning. Each interaction, no matter how seemingly mundane or routine, helps hardwire the neural connections they need to thrive in the real world. As Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman notes, these “skills beget skills”– establishing the foundation for their later success in school and in the workplace.

If we want to put Arkansas children on a strong path for the future and build a vibrant workforce for our state, we must look at where, and how, we can better support lifelong learning during these critical periods of early development.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, American children spend an average of 25 hours per week in non-parental care, including early childhood education (ECE) programs. Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8 affirms, “the adults who provide for the care and education of young children bear great responsibility for these children’s health, development and learning.” Yet, the National Academy of Medicine, says “many current policies do not place enough value on the significant contributions these professionals make to children’s long-term success.”

So, how can we help support Arkansas’ early childhood programs and, by extension, our workforce development pipeline? Research indicates educator knowledge and training are two of the strongest indicators of program quality. With proper education and support, data shows ECE employees are able to better meet children’s developmental, social and emotional needs and promote career-connected learning. As a result, children achieve greater school readiness, better K-12 performance, higher high school graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment, highly sought-after soft skills, and fewer behavioral and health problems later on – all of which make them more valuable and productive workers.

Unfortunately, as Excel by Eight shared, child care providers are often unable to receive additional education or training due to time or financial constraints. That’s where initiatives like the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) Early Childhood Scholarship Program come in. In 2019, Arkansas launched T.E.A.C.H. to remove traditional barriers to higher education by providing counseling support and paying for a majority of participants’ tuition, books, travel expenses and paid release time from work. Since then, the Arkansas Early Childhood Association says the program has provided scholarships to 55 students. Today, T.E.A.C.H. funds are fully obligated, with a waiting list to participate.

Far too often, states fail to recognize the reciprocal relationship between early childhood education and workforce development. But not Arkansas. With targeted and continued investments in evidence-based programs like T.E.A.C.H., we are equipping our students for the global workforce, meeting the needs of employers and building the infrastructure of a strong and prosperous economy.

Rick Neal is the Education to Employee Director for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce / Associated Industries of Arkansas. An educator for more than 35 years, he previously served as the superintendent for Pea Ridge School District and as a high school principal, middle school principal and social studies teacher.