Here’s how Minnesota policymakers can address the childcare worker shortage

Childcare is in a crisis. While employment in most sectors has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the same is not true for childcare. Nationally, over 100,000 workers are still missing from the childcare industry, as I have noted before. And as a result, more parents than before are missing work due to childcare problems.

Minnesota is not immune from this issue. In fact, some childcare centers are on the verge of closing due to a lack of workers.

Child care center operator Nicole Flick sees no shortage of parents trying to secure spots for their children.

“The spots are there,” Flick said. “We just can’t fill them because we don’t have enough staff to meet the ratios required by the state.”

The ABC123 Child Enrichment Center in Dilworth, Minn., east of Moorhead, is licensed for 173 children. But right now they can only accept 143 children.

The economics of the childcare industry are a bit problematic, generally. Since parents can’t afford higher tuition, it means teachers are paid low wages, which makes it hard to find qualified teachers. But since the pandemic, this issue has worsened as workers have left the industry for higher-paying jobs in other industries with less requirements.

Flick said she’s in a tough position. She can’t raise prices because parents aren’t going to be able to pay more, but in order to attract and hold onto staff she needs to increase wages. She can’t afford to pay benefits, which puts her at a further disadvantage against fast food companies in her part of northwestern Minnesota.

At the same time, she’s seen prices on food, utilities and supplies all go up. She worries that she won’t be able to stay open much longer at this rate.

“It’s very difficult to try to just keep the doors open. That’s what we’re doing right now. It’s just putting out fire after fire,” she said.

And unsurprisingly, this shortage is especially stark for the youngest kids, who have stricter child-staff ratios and thereby require more workers than older kids.

Clare Sanford, the government relations chair for the Minnesota Child Care Association, says the workforce shortage is most visible in care for the youngest children, where the required staffing is one caregiver for four infants as opposed to a one to 15 ratio for school age kids.

“The real crisis is in infants and toddlers, that is when there’s the least amount of care. We have the biggest scarcity of infant and toddler spots in Minnesota,” she said. “That’s when care is most expensive.”

What legislators can do

Something certainly needs to be done about childcare. But like always, the go-to proposal for legislators — especially for Democrats — is more public spending. And that is what we are likely to see in the next legislative session.

But as research shows, public investment does increase demand without increasing supply. And in some cases, when public investment comes with extra regulations, it might even impede supply, thereby raising prices up.

In order to help the childcare industry, and make it easy for providers to hire people and operate, Minnesota legislators should:

  1. Loosen child-staff ratios: this will ensure that centers can take care of more children with fewer staff.
  2. Loosen hiring qualifications: childcare providers compete with other higher-paying jobs that do not require stringent qualifications. Loosening rules will ensure that providers can find qualified workers easily. Moreover, no evidence indicates that length of training correlates with quality.
  3. Allow centers to use assistant teachers or aides as lead caregivers: Minnesota requires that the first person to satisfy the child-staff ratio — or lead caregiver — should have the qualifications of a teacher. However, teachers are expensive to hire, because they need more training, which raises costs and thereby tuition. If this rule is struck, it means that providers can use equally capable but more affordable workers with less educational qualifications like assistant teachers or aides as lead caregivers. Allowing providers the flexibility to use other skilled workers like aides or assistant teachers as lead caregivers would lower costs for providers without lowering quality, especially considering that assistant teachers in Minnesota face more stringent requirements than lead caregivers in many states.