Battle Creek

A roadmap emerges for Battle Creek area employers navigating childcare options for their workforce

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Local employers now have a new tool to assist them in their search for childcare options that will help them retain current employees and attract retain new ones.
A website launched earlier this month -- found here -- is an idea that took root after a regional CEO Summit with a focus on childcare in March hosted by Pulse and the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region and KC Ready4s, says Kathy Szenda-Wilson, Co-Director of Pulse at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. It provides a roadmap for employers who recognize it's time to help the parents they employ.

The roadmap can help the business leaders understand their options when supporting working families with their childcare needs. It offers a menu of possible solutions that include working family support, flexible scheduling, backup care, financial support for working parents, onsite care (bring your child to work day — every day), public advocacy, and expanding community capacity. For example, if an employer chose the expanding community capacity option on the website they would learn “shared services through collaborations with providers can pool administrative tasks such as HR, accounting, and purchasing to help childcare providers focus on delivering quality childcare. Employer involvement in these alliances includes in-kind donations of staff time, products, and financial support.”

Information that tells employers what they are getting into if they choose a given solution is also included. It shows how difficult the options are to undertake and what kind of impact they could be expected to yield in such areas as recruitment and retention, employee performance, and organization growth.

Kathy Szenda-Wilson, Co-Director of Pulse at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research delivers a presentation at a recent summit to discuss business options for employers whose employees need childcare alternatives.Pulse’s Roadmap was unveiled during an action summit two weeks ago, attended by more than 60 local CEOs and those charged with making decisions from the manufacturing, healthcare, and education sectors. The most recent summit was a follow-up to the regional CEO Summit in March.

“The word is out that the roadmap is available,” Szenda-Wilson says. “We responded with what we think the business community is asking for. I had somebody from Denso come up to me after the summit we held two weeks ago who had also attended the summit in March and said what was presented at the most recent summit was ‘exactly what we needed.’”

“Employers have the option of doing nothing, but they have to know there’s a cost to that. They need to acknowledge that their employees have needs and they have opportunities to advocate for policy changes. We hope they see the role they can play.”
Pulse (formerly BC Pulse) is a partner, advocate, and coach that works to improve early childhood development in Michigan. Pulse uses a child-centered and process-driven approach, according to its website. The employer-focused roadmap is specific to Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and Szenda-Wilson says in her searches she did not turn up similar solutions.
Pulse worked together with a policy equity group in Battle Creek and initially thought an approach would be to put together a menu of childcare options to create a website with a one-dimensional focus with links for employers, Szenda-Wilson says. A short time later, she says she learned about the existence of a roadmap created by the United States Chamber of Commerce for employers seeking ways to support working parents with childcare needs.
“Working parents have long struggled to access the affordable, quality childcare that enables them to participate in the workforce, but COVID-19 has made things even worse,” says a statement on the U.S. Chamber’s roadmap website. “The resulting impact on our workforce and organizations of every size and sector is more acute than ever and, for employers, it’s affecting their bottom line.”
Joe Sobieralski and Clarence Lloyd speak at a recent summit for business leaders seeking options for their employees who need childcare.Leaders with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation say they have received hundreds of queries from businesses regarding strategies to support working parents, but that understanding an employer’s options and navigating the childcare landscape can be complex and overwhelming.
“This roadmap is intended to help senior leaders and business owners learn their options for supporting working parents with their childcare needs,” the website says. “It is also intended to help leaders understand what to expect when embarking on this journey and how to take action.”
“I thought we could go deeper and we used theirs as the foundation for our roadmap,” Szenda-Wilson says.
A $75,000 innovation grant from the Early Childhood Investment Corporation was used to bring together business leaders around the new website and provide technical assistance. 
Duncan Aviation, Magna Cosma Casting, and Bronson Battle Creek, which were each represented at both summits, partnered with Battle Creek Unlimited to survey their employees about their childcare issues.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents who had at least one child under age 5 cited cost as a major issue because the expense of caring for younger children is higher; 62 percent said they missed work at least once per month because of issues related to childcare; 7 percent said they missed at least four days of work each month; and one out of every eight workers said they are searching for better quality childcare and not able to find it.
Szenda-Wilson says Bronson Battle Creek, Duncan, and Magna “have really been walking alongside us and are pilot sites for our work. They’re all ready to move.”
“We’re working with Pulse and the Upjohn Institute to understand the scope of the problem and we seem to be getting our arms around that now and have a pretty strong case for creating more resources with public dollars and maybe private as well,” says Andy Richards, Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer for Duncan’s Michigan operations.
He says leadership at Duncan became more aware during the pandemic of the childcare challenges their employees with children face. At that time more employees were working from home and trying to take care of their children simultaneously.
“That’s when we became aware of it and now as we’re coming out of the pandemic we are seeing that 40 percent of the need is not being met in the local area and that’s a huge deficit and yes, people are going to miss work because they don’t have childcare or family members can’t help them out,” Richards says. “We hear this all of the time. The employees are pretty forthcoming with what they said in that recently conducted survey. They let us know that they’re not finding resources or missing work occasionally to care for their children.”
Growing the childcare safety net
In October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that childcare entrepreneurs will soon be able to apply for start-up grants. The $23 million dollar in funding is part of Caring for Mi Future — a new initiative to open or expand 1,000 new childcare programs by the end of 2024. Applications for startup grants became available through the Our Strong Start website
“We’re working on the supply end and we know the demand is there,” Szenda-Wilson says. “If you’re bringing those things together, that’s awesome, but we need to leverage these dollars and be loud about what’s needed so that this money doesn’t go away.”
In the meantime, Richards says Duncan, which also has facilities in Nebraska and Utah, is working to accommodate the needs of employees facing childcare challenges.
“We’ve got some employees who are working a bit different schedules than the normal schedule because they don’t have childcare,” Richards says.  “We have a recent birth mom who’s coming in three days out of the five because she hasn’t been able to line up childcare due to a lack of availability. We are flexible with our schedules. If there are folks with young children not in school yet, and if their job function aligns, we allow some of them to work from home.”
However, none of the 680 employees at Duncan’s Michigan location headquartered in Battle Creek are working from home full-time. Some work part-time from home, but only if their job function allows it.
Richards says Duncan employees cite cost and a lack of childcare resources as their biggest challenges. He says Pulse’s roadmap website is a “starting point, but if you don’t have the resources (daycare facilities and workers), the cost is a non-issue.”
“What needs to be done is to have resources created that are closer to the workplace or team members' homes,” Richards says. “Money is available through the state and federal government to help with that. If the business community comes together to push a little bit and maybe work together to establish a resource that makes sense. I think of the Fort Custer Industrial Park. That seems like an ideal location. It’s so convenient because there are so many workers there.”
As Pulse and leaders of businesses and organizations work together to find solutions to the scarcity of childcare resources, Szenda-Wilson says the website will be continuously updated with information geared specifically for those in a position to make decisions.  

She says Pulse is exploring the possibility of creating a business/childcare liaison position to be shared with Pulse, BCU, and Southwest Michigan First. The individual who fills that position will provide ongoing technical assistance to businesses and organizations seeking to address their employees’ childcare issues and help them navigate the opportunities available to them.
“I know that there are business leaders at every different level and we have to meet them where they are. Some don’t even realize that childcare is an issue for their workforce,” Szenda-Wilson says. “There are those folks who are at a point of wanting to apply the knowledge they’ve learned. 

“This website is an entry point,” Szenda-Wilson says. “We see that there are still gaps. This is the start, but there should no longer be excuses that they don’t know what to do. We hope that they will have internal discussions about what they have the capacity for, what level of risk they’re willing to take, and what investment they have to make.”
Any conversations about investments in childcare must include a focus on increasing wages for childcare workers, many of whom are not being paid a living wage and have been forced to seek employment in other sectors where they can earn more.
“We know that it hits women harder than men. Childcare issues are still viewed overwhelmingly as a women’s issue and childcare workers are undervalued and underpaid,” Szenda-Wilson says. “There is no way locally to make up the cost difference to help these folks get raises. Childcare is so staff-intensive and the margins are narrow. Families can’t bear the brunt of that cost. We don’t have the same lobby and that’s why we need business leaders to provide tools to advocate on behalf of the childcare system. They need to go to the tables where decisions are being made and say, ‘Here’s what we need to do about childcare.’”
Richards says that childcare is not treated as a valuable profession “and yet we’re entrusting our kids with these folks. If they can make a couple of dollars more in a manufacturing job they will go there.” He says the lack of childcare resources will only get worse if efforts aren’t made to make sure childcare workers are being paid a competitive wage.
Among the impacts of the continued lack or loss of childcare workers is the challenge faced by employers to attract and retain employees. Richards says this is particularly true for entry-level employees who are younger and starting families.
“The needs are only going to grow,” he says. “If they can’t find resources in the local area, it probably won’t matter which company is involved, we’ll lose folks outside the region who will either relocate or not participate in the workforce.”
“There’s no way we can ignore it anymore,” Szenda-Wilson says. “Manufacturers even pre-COVID were complaining about not finding talent.  Companies need to reflect on their own internal practices and what might also get in the way of families with small children getting in the way of running their organizations in a successful manner. It’s not just about offering childcare, it’s about taking a look at what their policies are and what might need to change to retain and attract folks.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.