On a recent afternoon in the new Cook Inlet Native Head Start building in Anchorage, Executive Director of Conglomerate Ethan Petticru walked through one of the classes designed to look like a traditional original home.
He pointed to the flashing LED lights on the floor, like a fire pit, and a square-cut smoke hole in the cedar ceiling.
That said, in many ways, the room is ready to welcome babies and toddlers next month. But there is still one huge, missing piece.
“We need teachers,” Petticru said. “We’re ready to pick up the kids, I don’t have staff. We’re looking everywhere.”
Peticru is not alone. Many child care providers in Alaska – and nationally – say they are struggling to make ends meet. That means there were fewer slots in childhood and after-school programs than before the pandemic, when the state was already gearing up for child care.
It’s a tough challenge for working parents. And, it is likely amidst a complex entanglement of factors driving widespread worker shortages across industries, says one economist.
“We are hearing that people cannot go back to work because they do not have children to look after. Still, I can’t get people to take care of the kids,” Petticru said. “So I don’t know what the answer is.”
‘We are full and have very few employees’
Campfire Alaska, the state’s largest child care provider, is also struggling.
The program typically has 28 locations for before and after school care for elementary students in Anchorage and Eagle River.
But now, with so few employees, they’re preparing to open just 10 or 12 sites in August, said Jill Brubaker, Campfire Alaska’s senior manager of marketing and communications.
This means the campfire will serve approximately 350 children instead of the usual 1,100.
“Unless we can hire more employees, the decline is going to be 35% of our typical city,” Brubaker said. “We’ve never really had a shortage like this.”
She wishes she had better news for the parents.
“It’s really hard when we can’t meet that need. We get emails from families that say, ‘If you guys don’t open at my school then I can’t go back to work, please open at my school. ,'” He said. “There is a great sense of urgency, and I would even say panic.”
Child care providers say hiring has never been easier in a traditionally low-wage industry, but the pandemic has made it even harder
Depending on who you ask, staff shortages reached crisis points at various points in the pandemic.
For PettyCrew and Brubaker, that crisis point is now.
The same goes for Christina Eubanks, executive director of the Hillcrest Children’s Center in Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood.
“We are totally and importantly goofy,” she said. “So our teachers are working 50 hours a week.”
Hillcrest currently employs 16 teachers – down from the usual 22.
Eubanks said the center laid off staff last year after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shrink its city. Then when it extended back, many workers did not return.
Now, hardly anyone is applying for open jobs.
“A year ago, I placed an ad for these positions, and I had about 30 applicants,” Eubanks said. “This time I took out the ad, and I had one.”
According to child care providers, there is a list of factors behind the hassle of hiring.
For one, Eubanks said, she thinks that some former employees have reevaluated their priorities during the pandemic, and have not yet rejoined the workforce or are looking for better-paying jobs.
In addition, Brubaker said, some are struggling to find child care for their children, and can’t go back to work until they can.
“There’s a perfect storm out there,” she said.
PettiCrew also thinks that some people may worry about teaching in the room of unvaccinated children. Cook Inlet Native Head Start serves children up to kindergarten-age, and they are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
In addition, there’s a tight labor market, said Stephanie Berglund, chief executive of Thread, an Alaska child care advocacy organization.
Berglund said the median pay in child care centers is about $12 an hour, often with few benefits. She said there are many other similar-paying or higher-paying jobs open right now, including restaurant and retail.
“Every sector is struggling in the same way and so there seems to be more competition for the same potential workforce,” she said.
Eubanks stressed that it expects the state to release more of the federal coronavirus relief fund to help providers of early childhood education raise wages and attract employees.
Berglund said most child care providers don’t have large profit margins, so it’s hard for them to raise salaries or offer the same hiring incentives as some other occupations.
On top of all that, Eubanks said, a cyberattack that forced the state health department to go offline earlier this year disrupted the state’s background check system, halting recruitment since May.
“Nothing is going smoothly,” she said. “I’ve lost a few people I tried to hire because the process was taking too long.”
‘We’re totally ghosted’
But at Bright Beginnings Early Learning Center, owner Susan Deloch hopes the worst is over.
“I’ve been in this industry for 40 years,” she said. “And I have never looked at a difficult task like we saw in May and June. And we weren’t able to enroll new families at that time because we didn’t have the staff to care for the additional children.”
Earlier this summer staffing became so bad that Bright Beginnings had to temporarily stop caring for some children.
But now, Deloch said, they are able to hire enough workers to bring those families back, as well as enroll new ones.
This is thanks to an aggressive recruitment drive including referrals and hiring bonuses, she said. She also thinks it’s likely, due in part to the end of additional federal benefits for unemployed workers in June.
“It’s great to see our classes completely redone,” Deloch said. “Everyone is taking their lunch break and working their eight hours now. And it’s been really good. We worked hard to achieve this.”
In downtown Anchorage, tundra tykes are also “starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said director Angie Lantz.
“I have more candidates than I have in recent months,” he said.
Meanwhile, the demand for child care continues to grow.
Tundra Tikes is a federally sponsored child care program, and gives preference to the children of federal employees. Lantz said it has a two-year waiting list for children of federal employees and a four-year waiting list for children of non-federal workers.
“I inquire with families looking for babysitting at, I say, 20 to 30 weeks,” she said.
Back at Cook Inlet Native Head Start’s new campus in the Anchorage Valley of the Moon neighborhood, Peticru says he’s being ghosted by Pleasant.
“We’ll find someone. And they say, ‘Yeah, I’m interested.’ And we start going downhill with that process. And then the next thing is that we never hear from them again,” he said. “It’s happened to us many times. We’re completely ghosted.”
It is disappointing, he said.
But still, he and his colleagues are committed to recruiting six to eight more teachers in the next month and a half.
“We are contacting all the other teachers we know,” he said. “We are doing everything we can, both formally and informally, to inspire people to ply.”
If not rented, the Head Start building will open in August with space for fewer children.