Katy Brooks: To Build A Strong Oregon Workforce, Start At Birth
Investing in Kids, Birth to Career, Is Proven to Boost the Economy and Set Up the Next Generation for Success
Regardless of whether you have young kids at home or kids in school, if you live in Oregon, a variety of programs will help them succeed in their future careers and lives, and will improve Oregon’s and the country’s economic future. As we all feel the impacts of caring for, entertaining and educating our children from home during the COVID-19 crisis, we know that the data is in on preparing healthy, well-prepared children for the future.
An abundance of research points to evidence-based steps that can lead a child, and our economy, to long-term success, starting with investing in quality programs for parents of infants and toddlers. Voluntary home visiting programs – in which a healthcare or other professional provides support and guidance to new parents – can curb the likelihood of child abuse and neglect, increase school readiness, and may even steer kids away from crime in the long-term. However, as it stands, because of limited resources, the programs serve only about 20 percent of Oregon families who need the support. Oregon is beginning to address this problem with a statewide universal home visiting program, in which healthcare professionals conduct home visits one to three times shortly after the birth of a child. If needed, parents are referred to other services, including more intensive home visiting programs. For those parents needing and wanting more support, longer-term home visiting programs are vastly underfunded.
Another critical area of support, especially for parents who are in the workforce, is high-quality child care. The infant-toddler child care crisis is costing us all “big-time” as taxpayers, employers, and employees. Americans lose $57 billion each year from the crisis, due to losses in earnings, productivity, and revenue. I see the impact of the crisis first hand as someone who works on child care and economic development issues in multiple capacities: as a member of the Oregon Early Learning Council, CEO of the Bend Chamber of Commerce, and a mom. And I see the impact of the crisis in all 36 counties in Oregon, which are “child care deserts,” especially for parents with children age 3 and under.
To compound the problem, a lack of accessible, affordable, and quality child care, unfortunately, means kids are often not ready by the time they reach kindergarten. “Accessible” because there are not enough facilities, with nearly seven children under age three for each licensed child care slot. “Affordable” because they average higher tuition than public colleges, and parents of infants making minimum wage in Oregon are designating up to 62 percent of their paycheck to child care. And, “quality” because only eight percent of child care centers and just one percent of family child care homes in Oregon are accredited. More public investments in child care programs would help solve all three of these problems.
Similarly, increasing access to high-quality pre-K is vital for success. Quality pre-K can boost high school graduation rates, increasing the odds they will later be ready to enter the workforce or pursue higher education. Even with the passage of the Student Success Act, which increased funding for Oregon pre-k and added approximately 5,223 spots for children 200 percent of poverty and below, there will still be more than 20,000 children in low-income families with no access to pre-k. Moreover, teachers and programs will still need the tools and facilities to provide quality pre-k.
The old line of “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind, considering that studies have shown for high-quality pre-k programs, the rate of return on average to society is nearly $27,000 for every child served. That’s because quality pre-K can increase the likelihood of healthy futures, including reducing educational costs, increasing future wages and reducing proclivity to commit crimes. If you apply that figure to the estimated 19,960 children presently being served, we would save approximately $540 million over the children’s lifetimes. That alone exceeds the cost of pre-k. It just makes sense to pay now instead of later.
Even as kids become teenagers, we must continue to ensure they are workforce-ready, by investing in the development of their soft, hard, social-emotional, and technical skills. Chamber members often tell me how important communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills are when they’re looking for quality candidates to hire. The support needs to continue for kids as they age in order to have a “ready, willing, and able workforce” that has graduated from high school and is ready for postsecondary education or careers. Once children reach high school, providing them with a diverse array of “deeper learning” experiences through Career and Technical Education (CTE) and other programs helps ensure that all of our kids are ready to enter the workforce and compete in a global market.
Oregon has also wisely invested in career and technical education in high schools. However, the bottom line is that we still have a long way to go if we expect our kids to be ready to work. Seventy percent of all jobs in Oregon now require postsecondary education. Only 65 percent of Oregonians currently have this level of education, leaving what is called a “skills gap” of over 100,000 open positions without qualified applicants to fill them. While creating a pipeline for kids to become skilled workers is no easy task, ensuring that students develop the necessary skills will be vital to produce a world-class, competitive workforce. I look forward to seeing new and expanded CTE opportunities at all levels of learning in Oregon, to bring to life this vision of a successful school-to-work pipeline for all children.
The way I see it, there is no other option; if we want the next generation to be productive and successful, we must invest in kids early and consistently, from infancy to young adulthood. As our state and the rest of the world works through the economic and human turmoil of the COVID-19 virus, supporting humans from birth and into adulthood will remain an important stabilizer for our economy and communities. The numbers reveal that prioritizing investing in kids from “cradle to career” helps to ensure Oregon’s future workforce success and saves the state financially in the long-run.