The benefits of quality early learning programs are hard to dispute.
Children who attend are more prepared for kindergarten and more likely to graduate from high school.
Research tells us that for every dollar invested in early learning, we save anywhere from $4 to $17 in future expenses in areas such as special education services, prison and public assistance.
It’s clear that quality child care and preschool are good for children. What’s often missed is that they are also good for business. People can’t go to work, companies can’t fill jobs and our economy can’t grow without child care and preschool to meet the needs of children when parents are at work.
Unfortunately, our nation and, more specifically, our region don’t have enough available child care to accommodate the number of parents in the workforce.
Nationally, a recent study by the Council for a Strong America reported the economic cost of the U.S. child care crisis to be $57 billion annually.
Yes, you read that right. That’s billions, with a b, of money lost by working parents, employers and taxpayers because there is not enough child care or suitable care for families who need it.
In the national survey, almost two-thirds of parents reported leaving work early, and more than half reported being distracted at work or missing full days of work due to child care struggles.
For Cambria and Somerset counties, the numbers haven’t been crunched.
But a 2018 study of Blair County by Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Investment Commission found a shortage of care for infants and toddlers, as well as a lack of quality providers.
An employer child care roundtable discussion held in late March by Johnstown Area Regional Industries and The Learning Lamp, a leading provider of child care in the region, brought together both employers and community-based groups who run job training programs. Their input was remarkably consistent.
Candidates for hire and those enrolling in employment training programs can’t take jobs or commit to a training schedule because they can’t find care. Children are wait-listed. It could be weeks or months before child care becomes available.
Other common themes included lack of available care during the evening hours and on weekends, lack of care on snow days when school is closed, no available sick child care and few child care programs located conveniently for parents who rely on public transportation.
It’s a thorny problem. Child care providers want to provide care, but low unemployment and higher pay in other sectors keep people from joining the early childhood workforce.
The cost to operate a quality child care program is much higher than parents can afford to pay in tuition, and off-hour and weekend care are even more costly.
In order for our local economy to grow, and for parents to join and stay in the workforce, it’s time we come together and recognize that child care and preschool are critical workforce supports.
A lack of available care is not a problem parents can solve by themselves. This issue deserves the attention of all of us, and an investment by the businesses that early learning supports.
Employers, community leaders, lawmakers, please consider this your call to action.
Leah Spangler is the CEO of The Learning Lamp and Ignite Education Solutions, a Johnstown-based nonprofit organization that provides early learning programs and services to K-12 schools.