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Making It Work in Iowa: Professionalizing the Child Care Workforce Means Paying Them Like Professionals

Whitney Taylor belongs to Iowa’s largely female, often minority and almost always underpaid, child-care workforce. As center director at Capitol Park Early Learning Center in Des Moines, she wears a lot of hats: grant writer, diaper changer, supply chain coordinator, snow shoveler. She’s also vice president of the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children (Iowa AEYC) and she’s expecting her first child any day now.

“The imbalance between wages in retail and the vital work of caring for and educating our youngest children highlights a crisis with long-term consequences for Iowa, along with most other states. I cannot emphasize enough, the lack of child care providers is the number one issue in Iowa.” — Jillian LS Herink, executive director, Iowa AEYC
“Since the pandemic,” Taylor says, “We’ve had to change everything: furniture, toys, curriculum, training.” Costs of supplies have skyrocketed. For example, a pack of 1,000 latex gloves went from $30 to $125. “Luckily, the staff has stayed with us, but it’s always a challenge,” she admits. “The Target in Des Moines pays three dollars an hour more than we do.”

The imbalance between wages in retail and the vital work of caring for and educating our youngest children highlights a crisis with long-term consequences for Iowa, along with most other states, says Jillian LS Herink, executive director, Iowa AEYC. “I cannot emphasize enough,” she says, “the lack of child care providers is the number one issue in Iowa. We need to professionalize the field, so that we have a well-qualified and well-compensated child care workforce.”

“This is skilled labor,” Herink insists, dismissing recent proposals to let high school students fill the child care gap in her state. She points to the recently announced Investing in Iowa’s Child Care funding program and Child Care Task Force as evidence that Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and the state legislature are starting to treat the crisis seriously. She lists four additional measures the state could implement in the next three to five years:

1. Provide sustained funding for Child Care WAGE$®, a salary supplement program offered by Iowa AEYC. It offers salary supplements (also called stipends) to the early care and education workforce, based on the individual’s level of formal education and commitment to their program. Thanks to Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act 2021, WAGE$ is now going statewide in Iowa. According to Herink, this step will enhance the stability and retention of the child care workforce.

2. Support T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education And Compensation Helps) Early Childhood® Iowa scholarships—which Taylor has benefited from—enabling the workforce to attend college and earn degrees. Like WAGE$, T.E.A.C.H. is a licensed program of Child Care Services Association.

3. Name early care and education a “high demand” occupation. This recognition of the value of the workforce will create an avenue to increased professionalism for the field. The “high demand” designation can also mean enhanced funding via state initiatives.

4. Implement a salary scale that is tied to education and include a mechanism for child care providers to access benefits or additional pay for purchasing benefits

The business model of Taylor’s center is to combine families who can afford to pay for care with families on public assistance. The parents work in law enforcement, fast food and retail. Some live in a shelter for homeless youth. “It’s a lonely job sometimes,” says Taylor, “but other center directors have taken me under their wing. I thrive with group support.”

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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