Businesses, Child Care, and Meeting Employees’ Need for “Off-Hours” Options
Jeff Hettrick, who leads the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry, brings child care challenges to life for the Illinois Future of Work Taskforce
Last year, the Illinois General Assembly created the Future of Work Task Force to proactively plan for the state’s down-the-road employment considerations—from quality jobs and training to apprenticeships—and make a report of its findings to the governor and lawmakers. This provided ReadyNation an opportunity to present our early care and education priorities in a new venue and further connect the dots between business success, economic recovery, and investments in early care and education.
The child care sector has struggled for years with inadequate funding and workforce shortages leading to challenges in programs’ availability and quality. Then the pandemic hit, and a true crisis set in for working families and their employers, alike. Even as we continue to emerge from the toughest days of COVID and its effects, the child care sector has yet to fully rebound. Parents, children, and employers across the country and the state are feeling the effects of program closures and reduced capacity—often due to staffing shortages. Yet, as is often the case, descriptions of local impact truly bring the story to life.
Jeff Hettrick, Executive Director of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry, recently had the opportunity to shine a spotlight on some local child care challenges and to encourage the task force to view child care as a business sector that supports all other sectors. He testified:
“Locally, working parents and their employers have long felt the pinch of child care issues. It even appeared in a 2018 national report that mapped the extent of childcare ‘deserts’ across the country. Of nine U.S. Census tracts in the Ottawa area, seven were classified as deserts, greatly lacking capacity to meet area needs. In the western reaches of our community, there were 40 children for every single, licensed childcare slot available.“
"Then came COVID. Essential workers had to report, but child care was almost entirely family or friends. When facilities reopened, spaces were limited, costs increased due to Covid protocols and businesses saw the effects. Our workforce saw a large drop in 20- to 40-year-old women participating.”
Hettrick, who joined ReadyNation two years ago, continued in his presentation by talking about the shifting priorities of job seekers brought on by the pandemic and the needs of workers who don’t work 9-to-5 shifts.
“We ran two job fairs in 2021 and had 300 job openings in a town of 18,000. Talking to job seekers, healthy work conditions and child care were top concerns. Attendees liked some manufacturing and distribution jobs but there is no 2nd or 3rd shift child care at all in Ottawa. If you don’t have family help, you can’t work better-paying shift-work jobs. This limits some families’ ability to improve their financial situation.”
As important as it is to support the workforce of today by building a robust early childhood sector in which high-quality child care is accessible and affordable for working parents, it is just as important to have early care and education programs to develop the workforce of tomorrow. Early childhood programs are not only critical for supporting parents participating in today’s workforce, they’re vital in helping develop the workforce of tomorrow. High-quality early care and education sets the foundation for future learning—technical skills such as reading, writing, and STEM capabilities, as well as soft skills such as working in teams and independently, regulating emotions, and problem-solving. Hettrick continued:
“The focus and interaction with child care also opened our eyes to issues with early childhood education. Step one might be to have safe affordable childcare for the working parents, but just as important was the teaching and interaction of teachers with the children. We are already seeing the school issues with students coming back from a year of remote learning. Some families worked together, others skipped all video check-ins and did no homework. This new crisis pointed our chamber to the issues of early education and how do we start to help what is the workforce of tomorrow. We need incentives for quality child care, we need qualified teachers, and we need awareness.”
Hettrick brought his testimony home by connecting local needs to the larger, state and federal policy landscape and stressing the need to improve the funding and structure of the early childhood system.
“And looking at these longer-term needs, a bipartisan, statewide commission has spent a year studying ways of improving Illinois’ funding and governance of early childhood programs, to boost their adequacy and equity. Members of the ReadyNation network of business leaders, such as me, believe policymakers should take its recommendations very seriously.”
Hettrick’s presentation seemed to resonate with task force members, and the body’s final report, Future of Work in Illinois, featured his testimony. The report highlighted some of the policy priorities supplied by ReadyNation about the need to invest in the child care sector as a sector that supports all other sectors—and one key investment involves better-supporting the early childhood workforce.