As workforce development evolves, childcare shall lead

Safe (and a sound investment): Expanding childcare options is a regional economic issue requiring a regional solution, according to workforce-development expert Rosalie Drago (and others).
By ROSALIE DRAGO //

At a recent Long Island Regional Development Council meeting, co-chairman and Long Island Association President Kevin Law earned rousing applause when he said, “Childcare is not a mother’s problem or a parent’s problem – it is an economic-development problem and our region’s problem.”

As a workforce-development professional, a parent and a Long Islander, this was good to hear.

It’s tempting to see childcare as a value-add, especially now. Current job market conditions and competition for talent have motivated many companies to provide better and more distinct employee benefits, childcare included.

But independent of the nation’s economic/workforce landscape, high-quality childcare is a critical part of the workforce-development infrastructure, enabling greater participation and more significant advancement for all.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report The Business Case for Childcare describes lack of access to quality and affordable childcare as “a significant barrier that limits the supply of talent.”

Further, “Companies that take an active role in helping their employees secure these services generate billions of dollars a year in revenue due to increased workforce participation,” according to the report.

It’s easy to see why. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services determined that current market rates for childcare on Long Island hover around $15,500, covering one preschool child in a childcare center.

While the availability and affordability of quality childcare impacts all working parents, it takes a most significant toll on Long Island’s low-wage earners. The Child Care Council of Suffolk Inc. reports that a two-parent family earning a combined $30 an hour would pay at least 30 percent of its gross income – 30 percent, of gross! – on regulated childcare for a 1-year-old.

Rosalie Drago: Young at heart.

In addition to the expense itself, childcare can cost good workers a chance to advance. Employees routinely turn down training opportunities because they can’t afford the extra childcare needed to cover their classes.

And schedule often plays a factor. Shift workers who work “nontraditional hours” already face significant challenges (leading to programs like Anna House, a childcare and early-childhood education facility that provides support to workers at Belmont and Aqueduct racetracks, including early-morning and weekend care).

Low-wage earners and shift workers on Long Island are predominantly minorities, making childcare in workforce development an equity conversation as well. As more downtowns and hospitality destinations emerge and regional manufacturing flourishes, the issue of nontraditional hours in childcare will gain importance.

Childcare is even tied to the infamous Brain Drain. Some of Long Island’s best talent is taking its expertise (and earnings potential) to the city, where a larger share of employers offer Flex Spending Accounts and other dependent-care options, including subsidized childcare, shifting schedules and telecommuting opportunities.

As one might surmise, larger companies are often the ones who have the bandwidth to invest in recruitment and support tools like childcare. On Long Island, CA Technologies (formerly Computer Associates, before it relocated its HQ to NYC) had one of the most coveted childcare programs of its day.

“I personally did a study and saw that the thousands of employees who utilized our program had approximately a 25 percent higher retention than others,” noted Lisa Mars, former CA vice president of human resources. “However, this did require a huge investment on our part in the facilities, as well as considerable subsidy.

“We were profitable enough to make that investment.”

On Long Island, small businesses make up a substantial portion of our economy, but investing in childcare – while already struggling to gain traction and remain competitive – is often out of reach.

But this is a larger economic-development problem, remember. Our region’s problem.

Having children and positioning them to flourish is paramount to ensuring the future workforce. As our innovation economy evolves, as the advanced-manufacturing sector grows, attention will focus on robotics clubs and STEM programs, which will need to be accessible to all Long Island children. And I just might have to leave work early to get my kid there.

This is an important economic-development issue for Long Island. There are many possible answers – adopt the Quebec Model? Deploy the Department of Defense system? – and we are fortunate to have the Child Care Council of Suffolk County and the Child Care Council of Nassau Inc. to help us navigate this landscape.

But however we do it, integrating workable childcare solutions into our regional workforce-development strategy is critical – and it starts with a few small steps.

Rosalie Drago is Long Island regional director for the Workforce Development Institute, a statewide nonprofit focused on job creation and retention. The WDI pilots, supports and scales workforce-development initiatives that foster empowering careers for Long Islanders and a talented workforce for Long Island businesses.