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Stable child care in Watauga County would add 300 employees to the local economy, study finds

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Insufficient child care is keeping 300 individuals out of the labor pool in Watauga County, a new study estimates.

“If you put all 300 of those people under one roof, that would be a top-10 business, based on employee count, in Watauga County today,” David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview with EdNC.

“And that’s without having to relocate people,” Jackson said. “That’s without housing as a concern. That’s 300 people that move back into the workforce.”

As the child care needs of communities intensify, local and state business leaders are engaging in the issue in new ways.

In Watauga County, however, business leaders like Jackson have been working toward child care solutions since before the pandemic exposed how fragile the industry is — and before the pending expiration of federal relief funds threatens the future of nearly a third of the state’s child care facilities.

Those funds run out at the end of June, and those business leaders are sounding the alarm. They’re hoping the study, released in April by the chamber and the Watauga Economic Development Commission, provides evidence to back up the longstanding problems they’ve been facing — and a platform to advocate for urgent change.

“It’s just a matter of, does the state of North Carolina want to invest in itself?” Jackson said. “… It feels like this is one of those seminal moments right now where you could say, ‘In the face of everything that we’ve just come through, here is an opportunity for us to insulate our future.'”

‘At least we haven’t lost much ground’

The county needs 579 more child care slots, the study found, than the 913 slots it has. When it comes to after-school care, the county needs 1,672 additional seats.

The county has 34 licensed child care facilities, the same number it had in 2018, according to the study. In neighboring Wilkes County, the number of facilities went from 44 to 29 from 2017 to 2022, a study by the same agency, Dancy Research, found last year. Statewide, the number of licensed child care programs has decreased by 14% since 2018.

Jackson points to the community’s efforts to support the industry as the reason behind that relative stability.

“The scramble of the last few years has helped maintain stability,” he said. “Without a stronger community effort behind it, I would shudder to think of where we are now.”

Jackson pointed to Halee Hartley’s leadership as an example of the efforts’ results. After recognizing a large community need, Hartley expanded her services. She owns and operates Kid Cove, which includes two full-day programs, a half-day program, and a summer camp, serving about 250 children total. Kid Cove is the second-largest facility in the county.

“You definitely do not go into this field to make money,” Hartley said. “You go into it because you have a passion for it and you realize that there is a great need, and I wanted to meet that need.”

Hartley said that seeing the study’s results is driving her to expand her services further.

“That ignites something in me to just create more child care,” she said. “I don’t wait on board meetings and people to tell me what to do and how to do it. I just create more child care. If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Since 2018, business leaders have been at the table with child care advocates, providers, and other community leaders raising funds and working toward a systemic approach to child care. They understood that at the core of the problem was low pay for teachers — and an inability for providers to raise fees any further without pricing out families.

The local effort began a program that gave subsidy funds to child care programs to increase teachers’ wages in exchange for participating in training and professional development. From 2018 to 2020, the county’s programs saw an increase in average teacher wages from $9 to $12 an hour.

Though those efforts did help, Jackson said, it became clear that it was a larger issue than a community could solve on its own.

“When you start really talking to people, you understand that that need has been there for quite some time,” he said. “And we haven’t been able to chip away at that, but at least we haven’t lost much ground.”

‘We’re just on the brink’

Despite the community’s support, the county’s child care network is facing new threats.

In the last four years, old challenges have intensified. Costs of operating child care have increased. Staffing has become even harder. And the expiration of the federal funds stabilizing the system is projected to lead to closures, increased fees for parents, and decreased quality.

Along the way, more employers have noticed these challenges, Jackson said.

“It just became a little more real to them,” he said.

Jackson and Hartley are hosting local discussions to bring in new partners, and advocating at the state legislature for investment in child care in the short and long term.

“Child care is a huge economic driving force in North Carolina,” Hartley said.

A study from the North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council estimated 90,000 children would be affected by closures resulting from the funding cliff.

“That’s 90,000 families who potentially are not going to be in the workforce,” she said.

At the local level, even losing one or two centers will have huge consequences, Jackson said. He said he wants business leaders to understand the fragility of facilities operating on less than 1% profit margins.

“That is a hurricane remnant or a snowstorm away from being a really impactful scenario in a community like ours, where we’re we just on the brink of kind of that core root of Appalachia survival mode,” he said. “You just need one thing to upset the balance and you’re talking about places closing and people having to really think about what their work strategies are.”

The economic equation that still more families will have to solve will have a broader impact on the workforce, Jackson said. As fees increase at programs that remain open, many families will have to decide that having both caregivers in the workforce is not financially worth it.

“That plays out across rural North Carolina and all over the place,” Jackson said. “How many more people fall out because all of a sudden it’s like, we’ve tried as long as we could to do this, and now we can’t because it’s just gotten too expensive.”

‘An 18-year conversation’

Down the line, investments in young children are investments in the future workforce, Jackson said. He compared the need for proactive planning to conversations he’s had with his local community college. Caldwell Community College is expanding its nursing and trade school offerings.

“This is our community getting into the conversation of what we need next, where kids are, and how we can make that pipeline attractive,” Jackson said.

He hopes the same anticipatory strategies can be used in child care.

“It starts back at early childhood,” he said. “It’s just trying to get people to understand that it’s an 18-year conversation.”

That long-term pitch was at first hard to sell to fellow business leaders, he said. But since the start of his advocacy in 2018, it’s become easier to tell that story.

“This isn’t 18 years away — now it’s 10 years away,” Jackson said. “And this is really the spot where you need to start thinking about how you want to address your future workforce needs based on what’s coming.”

The report includes four pillars of strategies to increase the supply of affordable, high-quality child care: building a quality child care workforce, ensuring child care is affordable to families through public-private partnerships, increasing the supply and stability of child care programs, and advocating for local and state policy and programming changes.

Some of those recommendations can be accomplished at the local level, and some depend on a systemic solution.

“We hope that these numbers make a stronger case for legislators who say that they are about helping in these areas,” Jackson said. “Over the years we have developed a good group of folks across sectors to where they’re hearing it from different sides. It’s not just the early childhood education advocates hitting them, it’s the business community. It’s the local education side of things. It’s community development, in many ways. It’s workforce retention and recruitment. I think they’re hearing it from enough sectors now that it’s harder to run from the issue. And hopefully that leads to doing something.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.