The availability of affordable, high-quality child care is proving to be an problem for employers trying to recruit talent to the Great Lakes Bay Region. In Bay County, employers and schools are working to ease the problem.
The problem is multi faceted.
Many families today don’t earn enough money to pay for the basics. Those who work yet struggle to make ends meet are referred to as ALICE families, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to a recent study by the United Way, 43% of Michigan households earn less than they should to afford life’s necessities including child care.
At the same time, Michigan has seen a decline in the number of people working in child care jobs. Since 2010, Michigan licensed child care workers have declined by 2.5% (Source: Michigan Department of Education).
“Public policies have not kept pace with the dynamically-changing American household,” says Rich Van Tol of the Bay-Arenac Intermediate School District, serving both Bay and Arenac counties. For 25 years, Van Tol has supervised early childhood programs and coordinates the Great Start Collaborative.
“Post-WWII, there was a single breadwinner in the household,” he says. “One of the parents traditionally stayed home and took care of the children.”
At least two area companies, Vantage Plastics and New Hope Senior Communities, are trying to help employees find safe, affordable child care. And at least one school in the Bay-Arenac district also is working on a solution.
Rumi Shahzad, Managing Director and Co-Founder of New Hope Senior Communities, which runs New Hope Bay Assisted Living at 668 N Pine Rd. in Hampton Township, says he understands the position his employees are in when child care isn’t available.
“I can think of dozens of instances where an employee has had to call in because the child wasn’t well or the arrangement with a family member fell through,” Shahzad says. “I don’t fault the employee because of that. If it was me, at the last minute if I were put in a similar situation, I would probably do the exact same thing.”
But Shahzad also sees his business as uniquely positioned to address the problem.
“I think as humans we all need a sense of purpose. As we age, that sense of purpose can morph. It can change from full time to professional work to volunteerism,” Shahzad says.
New Hope Bay residents want to continue to be useful and to serve a purpose. Older people have much to offer children in terms of life experiences and stories.
“How cool would it be to be teaching the young ones how to read or write?” Shahzad asks.
While Shahzad was growing up, he was fortunate enough to speak frequently with his grandfather, who fought in both world wars. “He would tell me stories about his travels around the world and I couldn’t get enough of them.”
Shahzad’s vision is to re-create that experience for his residents and area children. He hopes to build a multi-generational community on his campus that mimics the way families used to live.
“If you go back a few generations when we used to have villages or extended families living under the same roof and the same neighborhood, everybody had each other’s back,” Shahzad says. “That’s the culture which is still in certain parts of the world, but we are moving further and further away from it in our country.”
Multi-generational communities benefit all. “Those sorts of ideas give our residents a sense of purpose that they are contributing and giving back,” Shahzad says. “I think regardless of how old we are, we have that drive of moving forward. If you look at all kinds of studies, they have looked at longevity of life, clearly having that sense of purpose is important.”
This project is in the works and Shahzad is looking for a partner. “We have the space,” he says. “We want to partner with the right provider who shares our vision and who has a shared sense of purpose with us.” Shahzad hopes to get this project off the ground within the next year.
Vantage Plastic President Paul Aultman is a firm believer that local people and businesses can come together and solve issues. The firm is based in Standish, but employs 14 people from Bay City. Child care issues have affected employees who live in every community.
Aultman allows employees to work from home or to occasionally bring children into the office.
“Normally if they bring their kids here, I give the little kid a toy car and he plays with it. But it’s not the answer for full child care,” Aultman says.
Vantage Plastics is planning on partnering with the Arenac Community Center (formerly Standish Elementary School) to provide local day care not only for its employees, but the entire community.
“The biggest issue that I hear in this community is just lack of enough day care,” says Aultman. “The idea is to get a couple of rooms there set up for day care.”
Day care availability also may help Aultman recruit employees from a wider area. Employees might be more willing to drive a longer distance for work if they knew their kids were nearby and safe.
Aultman isn’t alone in connecting day care issues to employee recruitment and retention.
“You’re not going to be able to attract those employees unless they have appropriate, adequate, affordable care for their kids,” Van Tol says. “The early childhood development education is where you really want the most talented and the most educated. Until there are policy changes to support some of this work, there is no sustainability plan.”
Child care workers care for one of the community’s most vulnerable populations. If done right, early childhood education provides a big return on investment by furthering a child’s education and development.
Van Tol points to a school in the Bay-Arenac ISD that is trying to build a child care program to help recruit employees to the Great Lakes Bay Region.
Au Gres-Sims School Superintendent Jeffrey Collier says recruiting high-quality, licensed personnel is the biggest issue facing the school district. Collier describes the greater Au Gres area as a "daycare desert" with limited access to quality daycare and preschool programs. The problem comes both from the high cost of quality programs and the lack of openings. Families move out of this area and into new communities in search of better educational and child care opportunities.
Currently, Au Gres-Sims offers a day care program for 18 kids. The district even offers buses to bring students to the center.
“We can mitigate transportation issues, we can bring them to a school campus where we can provide food and provide services through our partnership with BAISD. There’s a lot going on here,” Collier says.
Collier wants the program to grow. “One of the things that we’re hoping to do is to have another classroom that’s completely ready to go,” Collier says, explaining the that the room has passed all inspections and is certified through the State of Michigan. What he lacks is qualified personnel. Until he finds them, the door remains locked and students stay on a waiting list.
Van Tol says others in the region are looking at the program in Arenac County.
“I think he influences other Bay, Arenac and surrounding school leaders, as this paradigm and way of doing business isn't always easy to do,” Van Tol says.