Mar 9, 2022 - Economy

Why there's a child care worker shortage

Employees in child care services per month
Data: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

There's a shortage of child care workers in the U.S., largely because the pay is so low — and workers can now find higher wages in fast food and retail.

Driving the news: "We're competing with McDonald's, a half-mile up the street," said Meredith Burton, the director of a small child care center in Greenville, South Carolina. It took her all year to fill a part-time position that doesn't pay quite as well as fast food, she tells Axios.

  • The shortage is holding back parents, particularly women, from the labor market, where participation is still not back to pre-2020 levels. (A dose of reality to drop into the conversation around Women's History Month.)

Details: In February, 7,900 new jobs were added to the child care sector, according to the latest jobs report. That's nowhere near enough to get back to pre-pandemic levels.

  • For years, providers have kept the cost of child care relatively low by paying workers (overwhelmingly women) as little as possible. Before the pandemic, the average hourly wage for a child care worker was about $11.
  • Thanks to a huge infusion of cash from the American Rescue Plan, providers have been able to raise pay a bit, but it hasn't been on par with the kinds of wage increases happening at private companies or even public schools, said Lauren Hogan, director at the National Association for Education of Young Children.
  • "I just talked to [a child care provider] in Arkansas where Target is paying $24 an hour. They can't compete with that."
  • "This is a market failure that needs a public solution," she said.

Burton said she's had an easier time finding full-time teachers for her child care center because they're salaried — but those teachers could easily get a $10,000 raise for taking a job at a public school.

  • Right now she's managing a long customer waiting list, like many other centers around the country.
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