To say it out loud sounds much like a broken record, but it’s a fact: the child care industry is among the too many that lack sufficient workforce.

The recently-published Hechinger Report, for instance, indicated that nearly 120,000 child care workers left the field between 2020 and 2022 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, given the obvious health issues, but also low pay and stress, among other concerns.

To address the problem, Howard Community College has launched its child care professional apprenticeship program. It’s designed to create higher-skilled and higher-paying positions in the industry, as well as revitalize its employment base.

The program, which is supported through a $2 million grant from the Maryland State Department of Education, will commence with the fall semester, and on the surface appears to be a wise approach. For instance, statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor suggest that 91% of apprentices remained employed with the organization that initially hired them upon completion of the program.

The wage issue

Facilitated through HCC’s Division of Workforce, Career, and Community Education, the program is completed over 18 months, integrating coursework and 3,000 hours of paid on-the-job training.

The grant helped fund HCC’s Pathways to Teaching Center, which has committed to serving 45 family child care providers or career changers in completing the career certificate program, the associate of applied science program and the associate of arts in teaching program, said Bronwyn Bates, continuing education workforce programs manager for HCC.

In addition, the Center has committed to training 45-50 apprentices who will earn the early childhood development certificate and will be certified to be a lead teacher, child care director (which requires an associate degree) and be eligible to apply for the nationally recognized child development associate credential. 

Bates said the apprentices “will start at about $18,000-$19,000 per year, which is competitive for this field.” 

Christina Peusch, executive director of the Annapolis-based Maryland State Child Care Association, “applauds HCC for its efforts because child care businesses have not rebounded at the same rate as many other industries from COVID-19.” 

The first point made when addressing that issue is always about money. “Although apprenticeship models traditionally are very successful domestically and globally,” said Peusch, “the child care industry is very unique and has long suffered with paying a living wage” ― the average child care employee in Maryland makes $27,000 annually, according to the Maryland Family Network ― “and sustaining a qualified workforce. Businesses have to raise prices enough to cover the minimum wage law and try to pay workers more to compete in the marketplace.”

To her point, the average cost of child care in Howard County “for an infant is more than $400 and $300 for 2-5-year-olds. Due to strict regulations for staff to child ratios,” she said, “there is very little room to grow wages along with the tuition-based business where you cannot cut corners, work remotely or charge more than young families with young children can afford.”

She also believes the additional compensation HCC is providing to the businesses for entry-level apprenticeship wages “is an improvement from other apprenticeships already launched in Maryland to rebuild the child care workforce. It is one of the most underpaid and undervalued, yet essential, jobs within the economy.”

Other options

Cindy Lehnhoff has been in the child care industry since 1980. Today, she serves as director of the Annandale, Va.-based National Child Care Association and said one of the “most disturbing” changes has been “the lack of interest in individuals pursuing early care and education as a long-term career.”

But that’s not all that Lehnhoff questioned. She expressed reservations about apprenticeship programs, saying they can be “successful for a short period of time,” but “unfortunately have not had long-lasting positive results.”

Why? “First, many individuals that have gone through them actually earned credentials and degrees became eligible to work in the public school system as teachers and assistant teachers as PreK-3 grade educators,” she said. “The public school system nationwide has also had, and continues to have, a huge shortage of teachers. 

“As a result, our credentialed and degreed staff working in licensed child care centers realize that they could increase their pay, their benefits and their time off by moving into the public school system,” she said, “which is supported by taxpayer dollars.”   

Additionally, Lehnhoff pointed out that most working parents are already paying “more of their income to child care arrangements than their house payments/rent and/or what they would have to pay yearly in [tuition and fees] to a state college.” 

She added that “Starbucks workers make more money than child care workers, who are not paid and respected as essential employees and suffer from the emotional/physical demands of the work.”

Strong step

Lehnhoff did stress that the efforts “being made by HCC are well intended and no doubt will provide a positive contribution to the early care and education of young children,” she said. “However, it (does not address) the root cause of a failing early care and education system in the U.S.”

Bates said the private sector could assist by subsidizing child care costs for their workers “as much as they can” and offering more flexible scheduling when possible, as well as participating in apprenticeship programs like the new HCC offering. 

But Bates, too, knows that more help is needed from governments as well. 

“Subsidizing wages for early childhood educators and the cost for families could be effective ways to slow the loss of educators,” she said. “Educators deserve a living wage and families deserve affordable, safe places to send their children while they support their family in the workforce.” 

As for salaries, they’re “improving over time, but it’s a fine balance between getting the wages people need to live” and what the industry bears, said Bates. Still, at this point, she feels apprenticeship programs represent a strong step forward.

“We’re seeing that in fields that are losing workforce, students in apprenticeship programs are more inclined to sign on when they get trained and paid while they learn,” she said, “especially minorities who might not have the financial means to otherwise attend college.”

Average weekly cost of full-time child care in Howard County

Family Child Care ProgramsChild Care Centers
0-23 months$280.31$417.73
2-4 years$247.55$302.50
5 years$231.20$291.46
School Age Full$214.69273.83
School Age B/A$133.48$157.90
Source: Maryland Family Network/LOCATE