Last week, the Washington D.C. City Council voted in favor of using some of the city’s tax revenue to provide up to $14,000 to workers who care for young children. Washington will join a group of other cities and states that have utilized either tax revenue or pandemic relief funding to supplement the income of workers in the child care industry. The supplemental payments are aimed at retaining the current workers in the child care industry as well as luring qualified individuals, who may have left during the pandemic, back into the industry. While this may be a sufficient strategy if the goal is simply to reduce the worker shortage gap in the child care labor market, it will not address the critical issue of not maintaining enough students in the pipeline to receive the degrees necessary to teach in the child care industry.
Expecting the market to self-correct due to the injection of temporary income boosters for teachers is a mistake. This article explains some of the issues in the child care industry that prevent it from operating in any sustainable way without intentional policies and procedures set in place to help the industry operate more efficiently. Even though workers in the child care industry are paid on the same level as unskilled labor, many of these workers are required to have formal training. To become an early childhood education teacher, you need a college degree. In most instances, lead teachers are encouraged, if not required, to hold a master’s degree in early childhood education.
A Supply Chain Approach
A more appropriate way to manage our nation’s supply of early childhood educators would be to handle the situation as a critical input in America’s labor market supply chain. Just as a supply chain manager would manage critical inventory items more directly, we should have a system set in place to ensure that the pipeline for early childhood educators, and teachers in general, remains healthy and productive. Three of the most impactful ways teachers, schools, and the child care industry help improve our society are:
- Introducing and teaching societal norms and expectations for how we interact with each other;
- Allowing working parents to fulfill their duty as productive members of society by having jobs;
- Training the next generation of workers who will soon enter the labor market.
Without these services being provided by teachers, schools, and the child care industry, the way we view normal life in America would be drastically different. An efficient system would constantly track, the number of students in the pipeline to become teachers, the number of trained teachers currently in the system, and the number of teaching positions available in the system.
Who’s Earning Early Childhood Education and Teaching Degrees
Ninety-seven percent of individuals who earn degrees in early childhood education and teaching are women. Figure 1 shows the number of women by race and ethnicity who earned degrees in early childhood education and teaching from 2003 to 2019.
Figure 1. Early Childhood Education Degrees Conferred to Women by Race/Ethnicity: 2003-2019
White females earned over 80,000 more degrees in this field than all other groups combined. Whites represent 62% of the women degree earners, Blacks 18%, Hispanics 15%, Asians and Pacific Islanders 3.6%, and Native Americans and Native Alaskans 1.5% (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Percent of Women by Race/Ethnicity that Earned Early Childhood Education Degrees: 2003-2019
While some demographic groups are outpacing others in terms of the number of degree earners, the number of new teachers trained as a whole is not enough to support America’s child care system. Using the most generous student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1, the nearly 650,000 teachers who have earned degrees in early childhood education and teaching only provide enough labor to facilitate classrooms for 6.5 million students under 5 years old. The latest Census data estimate there are over 20 million children, ages 0–5, in the U.S.
We must begin focusing on securing both the current supply of qualified early child care education workers and our future supply. This will require support and communication between government agencies, facility providers, and educational institutions in order to ensure a plan is developed that can create a system of sustainability in the labor market for child care workers. Even if Build Back Better is stalled in Congress, we must continue to explore new ways to fix our old child care system.