Enterprising Women Spring 2022

SPEAK OUT by Lotika Pai Surging Demand, Shrinking Staff Burden Childcare Industry Here’s What Can and Should Be Done F ew industries have felt the impact of the pandemic as severely as the childcare industry. With nationwide closures of childcare centers and schools at the start of the pandemic, 5.1 million American mothers left their paying jobs to provide full-time, at-home care and education. Today, as many as 4.5 million childcare slots could be permanently lost from the pandemic’s impact, disproportionately impacting low-income families. The U.S. Treasury Department reported last year that the average cost of care was roughly $10,000 a year per child. The U.S., however, spends fewer public dollars on early childhood education and care than almost all developed countries. In fact, the U.S. ranks 35 out of 37 major economies in public investment in childcare, according to the White House. Today, even as childcare centers begin to reopen, they face the daunting challenge of meeting increased demand amid an industry-wide staffing shortage and stricter health and safety precautions than ever. The omicron surge made it even harder for childcare centers to stay open and provide children and families with consistent, reliable care. The economy’s recovery depends greatly on getting women back to work, and women are often the primary caregivers for the young and the old. The Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) gathered experts from the Chicagoland area to weigh in on what can be done to navigate the ever-developing challenges facing childcare business owners. Their advice for planning and adjusting has been insightful to the business owners we serve and continues to inform our efforts to aid in recovery and growth. Experts recommend seeking opportunities to innovate and improve overall business practices. Small, incremental process innovations like automating banking and billing procedures or sending newsletters and email updates to families can improve efficiency and reduce stress for business owners and employees. Marketing is another area that the experts urge childcare business owners to revisit and revamp. Due to the pandemic, families’ priorities have shifted to a greater focus on providers being able to accommodate non-traditional work schedules, safety and cleaning procedures, and an emphasis on socialization within curriculum. Take the time to conduct market research and focus marketing efforts on this new customer persona by using consistent messaging across multiple outlets, like blogs, online testimonials, social media, and signage. Experts also recommend that business owners start building a relationship with their business bankers. Strong relationships will help ensure that, in the future, business owners are not missing out on new lending programs or additional resources that they may be able to tap to increase working capital for their childcare business. However, the bulk of the responsibility to recover should not fall on the business owners alone. There are systemic issues at play that only effective changes in infrastructure can resolve. Nationally, about 35% of childcare workers were laid off at the start of the pandemic. As of 2019, childcare workers only made a median wage of $11.19 per hour, and many early childhood workers Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com 54 enterprising Women