The North Country has a major workforce challenge and a child care crisis that is only worsening the situation. Which means it’s time to get serious about solutions.
As we report this week, the region is experiencing a shortage of workers. It’s a circumstance somewhat at odds with the prevailing view of the economy of northeastern Minnesota, where we tend to think of unemployment as being the primary economic challenge.
While the relatively strong economy of the past few years has certainly made a difference, the region has at least two systemic problems which are likely to continue to limit the number of workers for businesses in our region. Perhaps the most critical is the aging of the workforce. Northeastern Minnesota has a population dominated by baby boomers, who are rapidly moving into the ranks of the retired. This is happening all across the country, of course, but unlike many other parts of the country, our region is not experiencing any substantial in-migration of new residents. So as boomers reach retirement, we don’t have as many available replacements as we need.
This hurts our region economically, because it discourages new business start-ups and expansions of existing businesses due to the lack of available workers. The lack of in-migration also limits the number of potential customers for new or existing businesses.
Among the start-up businesses affected by the workforce shortage is the Little Eagles Childcare Center in Tower, and the center’s experience is a case study in why we need to do even more to address the childcare shortage, particularly in small communities. The center has been closed since March because its board can’t find qualified staff to run the state-licensed facility. It can’t find staff because, like so many childcare centers, it can’t afford to pay the kind of wages that will attract qualified people. This has been a chronic issue for childcare facilities and the stronger economy is only making the challenge all the more difficult.
In many cases, such centers have increased wages to keep pace, but the only way to pay those higher wages is to charge parents more for child care services. And that puts an enormous burden on families, for whom childcare costs are already significant. As those costs rise, more families opt to have one parent remain at home, and that limits the availability of workers, exacerbating our workforce shortage.
State and federal officials have tried to address the situation by offering some scholarship funding, direct childcare assistance for income-qualified families and tax credits. But those incentives simply haven’t been enough to make child care affordable for many families. The programs can also be cumbersome and can take weeks or months to successfully apply for.
A better approach would be to work directly with centers to buy down some of the staffing costs, particularly in underserved regions like much of rural Minnesota, in exchange for a limit on what centers can charge for their services. This would allow private childcare centers to obtain the funding needed to attract quality staff and ensure greater affordability for families using the center.
We hear all the time of the need to attract new, preferably younger, residents to our region. Yet the existence of quality and affordable child care is one of the major deciding factors that young families consider before moving to a new community, and it’s one reason that some young people opt to leave the area.
We need to recognize that developing childcare access is a key element in building our region’s workforce and its economy.
These days, building a strong and sustainable economy in our region is about more than creating jobs. Most parts of the country, particularly larger cities, offer an abundance of opportunity for young people. They won’t consider places like northeastern Minnesota unless we have amenities that they enjoy, and the basic services, like quality, affordable child care, that they expect. If we’re going to attract new workers to our region to address our workforce shortage, we have to address the childcare shortage now.