Loosening rules could ease childcare labor shortages

Childcare providers are having a hard time recruiting workers in Minnesota. According to the Star Tribune,

A March survey by the Minneapolis Fed and First Children’s Finance found even though hiring woes have eased since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, child care providers are still struggling to attract qualified employees. Child care center respondents reported more than 700 open teaching positions resulting in more than 2,000 unavailable child care slots statewide.

As a result, some providers are operating below capacity.

“A center may be licensed to care for, let’s say, 75 or 100 kids. But if they don’t have enough staff in place to meet the [state staffing] ratios required for each age group, they can’t operate at their licensed capacity,” said Suzanne Pearl, Minnesota director of First Children’s Finance, during a virtual event Monday. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen many centers operating with empty classrooms. They have the space, they just don’t have the people.”

Stringent regulations are to blame

Certainly, a tight labor market may be contributing to the lack of workers However, Minnesota’s stringent regulations are probably making things worse.

Minnesota has higher than average staff-child ratio requirements than the rest of the country. That is for every number of children, Minnesota requires a bigger staff. This becomes a problem when there are few people to hire, resulting in providers operating under capacity.

Secondly, Minnesota also has more stringent hiring requirements for childcare workers.

Consider the following: Someone applying to be a teacher at a licensed daycare center in Minnesota needs to have a four-year degree. In addition, she or he must have more than 1,000 hours or six months of experience as an assistant teacher. But in over half the states, rules aren’t as stringent.

Sure, there are various paths to becoming a child-care teacher in Minnesota. But all of them require a great deal of investment, in both time and money. Someone with a high school diploma, for instance, must work for a year as an aide or intern and take some college-level classes, first to become an assistant teacher. After that, he or she must work another two years as an assistant teacher, and again take some college-level classes, to then become a teacher.

It becomes especially tough for providers to find workers in a tight labor market since for less qualifications, applicants can find higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

The problem doesn’t stop there, however.

Adding to the complexity, even though assistant teachers in Minnesota are relatively more qualified than teachers in other states, they cannot be used as lead caregivers in day-care centers. Instead, state law mandates that for every group of children in a classroom there must be a teacher present. This limitation is compounded by the fact that unlike in most states where the cut-off age for infants is 12 months, in Minnesota, it is 16 months. Consequently, slightly older children are limited to low staff-to-child ratios, unlike in other states where teachers can put them in slightly larger groups where the cost of care is spread over a higher number of children.

Loosening requirements could ease worker shortage and high prices

Generally, childcare is an issue affecting every corner of the US. However, Minnesota has it much worse. This is due to stringent regulations.

All states neighboring Minnesota have relatively more affordable child care in part because they generally have more relaxed rules. South Dakota allows up to five infants per center staff, while in Minnesota the maximum is four. In South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa, staff dealing directly with children must only meet age and training requirements. Sure, child-care workers in North Dakota operate under supervision, but those supervisors only need to have a school diploma and one year of child-care experience. While Wisconsin does require child-care workers to have college credits, it only requires two courses for teachers and one course for assistant teachers. Moreover, a center can hire an assistant teacher with no prior experience, and a teacher is only required to have 320 hours of experience, not thousands.

The child-care crisis is government-made, which also means that there are solutions to it.

Overall, research has found that stringent staff-child ratios, group size limits, and hiring requirements have little to no effect on childcare quality. This is mainly because these regulations do not significantly impact teacher-child interactions. Surveying the literature, however, one study by the Mercatus Center found that training in early childhood education has some effect on quality.

This means that as long as childcare workers are trained in early childhood education, Minnesota can do away with stringent staff-child ratios and group size limits as well as lengthy training requirements without jeopardizing quality.

A bill was introduced this session to eliminate all, but age and on-the-work work training requirements for childcare workers. The bill would have allowed childcare centers to hire anyone above 16, provided they undergo some training (including in early childhood development) before taking care of children. Sadly, the bill went nowhere. But if Minnesota is to tackle the lack of workers and the high cost of childcare, this is the kind of bill lawmakers need to pass.

Nothing short of addressing rules that make it hard for providers to find workers and drive up the cost of care will lawmakers truly address Minnesota’s childcare woes.