ModeChat: Wendy Jackson on why business must support early childhood education

Wendy Lewis Jackson is the interim co-managing director for the Kresge Foundation's Detroit Program. Her work supports organizations providing economic opportunity for low-income people and addresses the needs of vulnerable children and families.

During this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference The Kresge Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation co-hosted a lunch panel called Increasing the Bottom Line: Why Michigan Businesses Are Investing in Early Childhood Development, which focused on corporate responsibility to support early childhood education with benefits and health incentives for employees.

We caught up with Lewis Jackson to find out more about how Michigan businesses are investing in early childhood education, and what more they can do.

Mode: Goal number one in the Michigan Department of Education’s “Top 10 in 10 Years” effort is “to provide every child access to an aligned, high-quality P-20 system from early childhood to post-secondary education." It proposes to accomplish this through a multi-stakeholder collaboration with business and industry, labor, and higher education. What does it mean for Michigan companies to see themselves as “stakeholders” in early childhood education?

Jackson: Companies and business leaders are critical stakeholders in the movement to ensure that every young child in Michigan gets off to the best start. 

Companies have deep influence not just on the people they employ, but on the communities where they do business. If companies want a stable customer base and a highly qualified workforce, now and in the future, they have a natural stake in ensuring the community writ-large is a safe, thriving place to live and learn. This naturally includes the employees on their payrolls who have young children in their care, but it extends further than that.

One example of what this can look like came from Minneapolis. Kresge's  President & CEO Rip Rapson worked with the McKnight Foundation to lead a task force of CEOs from leading businesses. Their goal was to work together to ensure the future of Minneapolis as a positive place to do business—and protect their bottom lines. 
The number one issue this task force identified was expanding the availability of quality early care and education. The connection between a healthy early life and future earnings and potential was that clear.

How do Michigan companies view the relationship between corporate responsibility and the strength of our future workforce?

It’s an ethos now. It’s partially coming from a place of corporate responsibility, but it’s also about developing leadership and the talent required for the next generation of the workforce. 

Historically, employers have looked to state and local government to develop policies to benefit working parents. But the conversation is expanding and making clear that corporations can lead. 
A great example is Cascade Engineering, which partners with the Michigan Department of Human Services to have a case worker on site to help employees new to the workforce better access state services and to solve issues like finding childcare. That’s the kind of public-private partnership that we need, and both businesses and the public sector can take the lead on it.

As a state, we stand to gain when our most talented residents put down roots and stay in Michigan as their careers progress and grow. Not only that, but we leave so many residents outside of our state’s economy by keeping them shut out of the job market in the first place, when it is more expensive to find quality child care than to stay home and care for children.

What’s the disincentive for companies to adopt family-friendly policies?

We need to continue to do a better job of bringing to light facts and data about what it takes to support and raise a young child. We need to better lift up the voices of parents, particularly those from low-income brackets.

But, of course, there are financial factors at play here. These policies do cost money and might impact the bottom line, leaving fewer returns for investors or owners in the short term. But long-term benefits are ever-present.

Most businesses have fewer than 50 employees, too small to be under the umbrella of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Small businesses feel the impact of an employee on leave far more than those with hundreds of employees. For most of these companies, it’s not an unwillingness to offer these policies or a lack of awareness; it’s that we as a society haven’t figured out the best way to do it.

Companies might ask themselves to compare the costs of offering more generous policies to those of consistently having workers miss work or to losing valuable employees and having to take the time to recruit and train new ones.

The key question for Michigan companies is, how can they stay competitive and attract talent when competing with those that offer generous leave policies and innovative supports for parents? Facebook, for just one example, offers employees $4,000 bonus in baby cash. These kind of innovations are becoming more and more common in other parts of the country, in particular on the West Coast, and Michigan needs to keep pace if it wants a highly diverse and talented workforce.

What are some examples of companies or organizations in Metro Detroit doing right by lower-income workers and their families?

There is a range of ways corporations can help change this—through extended and paid leaves, by offering dependent care flexible spending accounts, by investing in on-site child care services, by providing work-at-home options, using flex scheduling and job shares, and providing comprehensive lactation support for new moms. These kinds of policies reduce employee absences, reduce turnover, reduce lost work time, and they boost productivity and morale.

There are innovators like the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which advocates for paid sick days for restaurant employees and implements programs to provide childcare solutions for restaurant employees in Detroit, including late-night care.

There’s Veronika Scott from The Empowerment Plan, which, as it is expanding its business, is doing so with childcare in mind and will locate right next to a quality childcare facility.

And there are small firms that can and do offer a living wage instead of minimum wage. Examples locally include places like Moo Cluck Moo and Rose’s Fine Food. Improved wages won’t solve the systemic issues at play—but they would help.  

Many companies, where possible, offer flexible working schedules. And that’s a great help. But what is the next step? What other creative ways that can companies address family-forward policies?

We must continue to shine a light on the individual companies that are providing the necessary leadership to move forward, but we must also support the role of communities to establish an enduring playbook for the essential supports, policies, and engagement for long-term change.

For Kresge, the next step we’re taking is through the Kresge Early Years for Success Detroit initiative. We’re investing $20 million into early childhood efforts in Detroit, and a key piece of that work is a partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to convene key stakeholders, including the business community, with other sectors and leaders to come up with a shared vision for how we improve early childhood outcomes in the city. We’ll fully embed our work in the statewide landscape and will be offering recommendations for how the state as a whole can better support young children and their families.

What is the best of all possible scenarios for Michigan’s next generation of workers?

They’ll be supported and cared for at a young age, they’ll arrive at kindergarten healthy and fully developed emotionally, socially and academically, and they’ll be ready to learn, grow and one day contribute to Detroit’s vibrant comeback story. This will only happen through strong public-private partnerships that will ensure families and companies can find and offer the highest quality supports.

Read more about how several Metro Detroit workplaces are making strides towards more family-friendly workplaces here.
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