A $1.15 million project to stabilize and grow the childcare workforce led by First Steps, an initiative of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley (CFNRV), is among the eleven community projects funded by the Town of Blacksburg with its allocation of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Established in 2016, First Steps is a network of more than sixty New River Valley (NRV) organizations working to support young children and families. Childcare providers, public school officials, and social service and healthcare organizations work together to share information about the range of services available to children and families in the NRV, to speak with a common voice about the critical importance of early childhood education, and to support the early education and development workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing challenges facing the early education workforce in the NRV and nationwide, and the situation has become far more dire as the region emerges from the pandemic. According to a recent survey of providers in the region, childcare centers are operating at just thirty-three percent of their licensed capacity due to a lack of qualified teachers and support staff, leaving nearly 7,000 children ages birth to 6 years without access to care.
Centers have had to close individual classrooms or modify hours to meet state licensing requirements for student-teacher ratios, and recruiting new workers into the field has been extraordinarily challenging. Despite raising starting salaries several times over the last two years, early educators earn far less than those in retail and office jobs. Low pay, limited benefits, and the persistent misperception that childcare providers are merely “babysitters” rather than trained educators, has made recruitment and retention difficult.
“The challenges with recruiting are many,” said Judy Shelor, Center Director of Valley Interfaith Child Care Center, “A few of them are wage inequality, increasing educational opportunities and competing with retail establishments for workers. We are committed to offering our staff a living wage, supporting educational opportunities, and elevating the professional status of early childhood education, all while providing high-quality care that is affordable to the families we serve.”
The lack of qualified educators also has a profound impact on employers of all kinds, forcing parents to leave the workforce when care is unavailable or inconsistent. According to the Virginia Promise Partnership, inadequate child care leads to a loss of $38 million in family income, $13 million in business revenue, and $7 million in tax revenue in Montgomery County alone.
First Steps will use the funds from the Town of Blacksburg to pilot a program over the next four years focused on retaining early educators and building the workforce pipeline. Major components of the program include stipends to educators based on their length of service and credentials, scholarships and job placement services for high school and college students pursuing a career in early education, and outreach to area employers to create public-private partnerships that keep childcare accessible and affordable.
“It is both reassuring and inspiring for the Town of Blacksburg to invest in the early care and education workforce because they are the foundation for quality,” said Karen Gallagher, Director of the Child Development Center for Learning and Research at Virginia Tech. “The town is laying the essential groundwork that will facilitate additional public and private partnerships in order to stabilize and grow quality early care and education for working families in the NRV.”
First Steps hopes to secure additional private and public funding to expand the program beyond Blacksburg in the coming years.