For Central Pa. day care centers, sharing services bolsters finances
Facing high costs, thin margins and a worker shortage, Pennsylvania day care centers are pursuing new agreements to help reduce costs and boost recruiting efforts.
Known as a shared-services model, these agreements typically take the form of independent, nonprofit organizations that link the needs and expertise of a group of day care centers to help them conduct job searches, form substitute pools and engage in group purchasing of supplies.
While not entirely new to the early child care/education industry, shared services could become more commonplace thanks to a sizable new grant. Given to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services by The Heinz Endowments, the $300,000 grant is meant to help the department coordinate with day cares to form three shared services hubs.
Administered by the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, the grants will be awarded to proposals for shared service networks with technical assistance in building the networks from the Department of Human Services, according to a department spokesperson.
The three new service shares will join groups like Early Childhood Innovative Connections, or ECIC. Started in 2012, the Lititz-based nonprofit facilitates coordination among eight member day care centers across Lancaster County.
According to Charlotte Brady, acting president of the organization, service shares can be an invaluable resource for accessing training and professional development opportunities.
“If we’re able to share the costs, instead of one center paying $1,000 for the trainer to come in and do that session, there’s three or four of us that can have employees do the training and we can share the cost of having that specialist come in,” said Brady.
Alongside that training to retain workers comes a need for future workers. According to Brady, child care centers face a near-permanent staffing shortage.
“It’s really become difficult to find qualified individuals to work in our programming, or even just come in contact with people who are willing to come and work in the field of early childhood,” said Brady, who is also the director of the Cocalico Care Center in the borough of Denver in Lancaster County.
Shared service hubs like ECIC can help day cares share the burden of finding qualified workers.
“We’ve been working together to do shared advertising system, where we all post jobs together and we’ll go ahead and use some outside resources and software to allow individuals to see all of our positions that are available,” said Brady.
One solution that hubs can provide for day care centers is a substitute pool. The organization employs someone who then “floats” across member day care centers as a full-time job, ensuring each has adequate staffing.
In order to populate the substitute pool with qualified workers, shared services can develop a pathway for entry-level workers to acquire training and experience. Diane Koon, program and employee specialist at ECIC, is leading a program for the hub that centers on employing entry-level workers and helping them acquire licensing as a certified childhood development associate.
In the program, the hub works with recruiters like CareerLink to connect workers with opportunities for training. This pipeline can help supply the organization and its member day care centers with qualified workers, said Koon.
“One of the things our member programs have requested is a pool of substitutes, and we have not been very successful recruiting for that. Combining it with a training program is something we’re trying right now,” said Koon.
One reason day care centers struggle to find workers is the pay standards within the industry.
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, 90 percent of child care workers in 13 of the state’s largest metropolitan areas earn below the cost of living.
Child care workers in the commonwealth earn an average hourly wage of $10.25, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Few day care centers offer significant benefits to their workers and, as small nonprofits, they do not have to provide health insurance to full-time workers. That lack of coverage can make it even harder to lure workers to the industry.
At the same time, child care is notoriously expensive, often costing the same amount a typical family spends on rent.
The average cost of daycare in Pennsylvania — $887 per month — represents 16 percent of a median family income. Child care workers earning the average wage for the industry, however, would need to devote over 55 percent of their income to put their own children into day care.
But day care centers have little room to raise wages, and even less room to pursue things like professional development. According to the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, 85 percent of a day care center’s budget goes to worker wages and can often be the first thing cut when income falls short of expenses.
“Many times centers are subsidizing the care they provide through the wages that would otherwise go to staff. I know directors who haven’t taken salaries to keep their businesses afloat,” said Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.
These razor-thin margins make it all the more important for shared service hubs to alleviate whatever cost they can for their members, said Barber. In doing so, they help day care centers empower their workers while attempting to minimize the costs to parents.
“It’s a real challenge and a huge responsibility. We look at the research on the impact of those first five years of life, and that’s why we push and advocate for resources,” said Barber.