‘Workforce behind the workforce’ challenged by low pay even as child care becomes less affordable

They are called “the workforce behind the workforce,” the child care providers and preschool teachers who make it possible for parents to go to work each day.

“Now that a lot of parents are back to work, a lot of families are going back. They’re in the office and they’re back in their field the children are able to come in to a place like this and feel safe all day long,” said Lauren Kolks, director of Mini University at Miami University. “The families really count on us to be here Monday through Friday, 7 to 6, and provide their child with everything that their child needs while they have to go off to work to provide for their families.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

But low pay, the sometimes difficult work, and the health fears and other challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an exodus from the field, causing child care centers and preschools to close classrooms due to lack of staff or shutter operations altogether.

“Providers are really struggling to find and retain workers,” said Will Petrik, project director at Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal-leaning think tank.

That makes it even harder for parents to find affordable, quality child care so they can go to work.

“Capacity is an issue that must be addressed alongside cost in order to truly move the needle on this issue,” said Stephanie Keinath, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“From an employer perspective, access to child care continues to significantly impact our workforce both locally and nationally. This issue is not limited by industry or geography, we’re hearing from our rural, suburban and urban employers in every sector that child care is directly impacting their ability to attract and retain talent.”

Child care closures

It’s unknown how many home-based or center-based child care providers closed permanently in the Dayton/Hamilton/Middletown/Springfield region between January 2020 and March 2023.

But the number of providers licensed by Ohio Job and Family Services declined by 25 to 735 in the 12-county region during that period, according to data collected by 4C for Children, a non-profit resource and referral child care and preschool agency serving southwest Ohio counties.

Butler County had the worst net loss, 13 programs, followed by Clark County, which lost 5 programs.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

The data doesn’t include programs that remained open but shuttered classrooms due to lack of staff, which has had a significant impact on openings for children, said Lisa Babb, 4C senior strategic director.

In March, a survey of 109 local child care center directors found they had closed 136 classrooms and were short 213 teachers, which meant 1,398 children could not be served, according to new data from 4C.

Dayton and Montgomery County Preschool Promise surveyed its providers in the fall and found they had 300 unfilled positions.

“That equates to about 2,000 children that are on waitlists because we can’t open classrooms because we don’t have teachers to hire,” said Robyn Lightcap, executive director.

Worker pay

In Ohio there was a 6.5% decline in the number of child care services employees, to 32,148, in the third quarter of 2022 compared to the similar period in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nationally the child care services workforce lost 59,800 employees, a 5.7% decline between February 2020 and this February. There are now 990,000 people doing that work in the U.S.

“Staffing is going to make or break this problem right now,” said Kim Kramer, CEO of Mini University, which operates child development centers at Sinclair Community College, Wright State University, Miami University and Hope Center in northwest Dayton.



“There are probably few businesses that are not seeing staffing as a problem,” she said. “But for education across the board people have to be there to work with the children in the classroom.”

Hourly median pay for child care workers is $13.22, up from $12.24 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2021 report.

But preschool teachers, whose jobs require a college degree, saw their hourly median pay decline to $14.52 hourly, from $15.35 the year before, the data show.

Pay is even lower in Ohio. Median hourly pay for child care workers is $11.17 and for preschool teachers it is $13.89.

“You can’t even afford to be a child care worker without getting assistance to pay for your children’s care,” said state Rep. Andrea White, R-Kettering. “You can make more at Chick-fil-A or McDonalds than our child cares. We’ve got to rate the value of this critical infrastructure that supports our workforce and families. We’ve got to find more child care providers and workers.”

Raising pay could help retain and attract workers, but since that increases costs it could translate to higher prices for families for already expensive care.

‘It was very challenging’

“These issues contribute to what the U.S. Treasury Department calls a failed market requiring substantial government investment,” according to a U.S. Labor Department-Women’s Bureau report on nationwide child care prices released in January.

Before the pandemic Shelly Jackson-Engram ran two child care centers, Ms. Shelly’s Place in Moraine and Ms. Shelly’s Place Academy in Dayton. Both closed for more than two months during the pandemic shutdown in spring 2020.

“I was starting to boom, and here come COVID and her brother,” said Jackson-Engram, who due to staffing and lack of children had to permanently close the Dayton center in 2021.

“It was very challenging. I’m not fully recovered but I’m better. Now that things are starting to open up a little bit more, enrollment is starting to really increase,” Jackson-Engram said. “Now the thing we struggle with is staffing. The lack of staffing kind of stopped us from increasing our enrollment.”

Mini University pay starts at $15 per hour for those with a high school diploma, and assistant teacher pay is in the $17 range, Kramer said, but sometimes people will leave to take a job that pays $2 less because the work isn’t as hard.

Others providers echoed complaints commonly heard across business sectors, even before the pandemic. Jackson-Ingram said she struggles to find workers who have a high school diploma or GED and who can pass a background check.

United Rehabilitation Services hasn’t reopened an infant classroom or found enough workers for summer camp, said Tracy Pohlabel, youth services manager for the child care center and preschool that straddles Huber Heights and Riverside.

“I’ve hired staff and they either are too busy on cell phones, not paying attention to the children, or they ghost us,” she said “They act like they want the job but when it actually comes time to get in here and do what needs to be done they’re just not in it.”

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