The key to a great opportunity if we can grab it

childs hand with jar of crayons

By Marnie Werner, VP, Research & Operations

Ready for a silver lining? So much of what we hear about the pandemic is doom and gloom, but as a new report we released last month on workforce and job vacancies showed, rural Minnesota is sitting at the crossroads of two important trends that have created a big opportunity. Minnesota has a large number of people out of work, but rural Minnesota has also a large number of quality jobs sitting vacant, waiting for workers with the right skills to fill them.

Like a rare alignment of the planets, this alignment in the workforce universe is the kind of opportunity rural areas have been waiting for for ages. But a few things have to be taken care of first to make this work.

The first issue we addressed in last month’s report. Most of Minnesota’s unemployed workers’ skills don’t match up with the skills rural employers currently need in health care services and the growing manufacturing companies. Many of the needed skills require training. Matching the right people with the right training programs to get them into good jobs would be a boon to young families looking to move to a community for the rural lifestyle.

The other piece, though, is much tougher to figure out and fix, and that piece is child care. The one thing holding rural Minnesota back from taking a serious leap forward economically is the lack of workers, and there are three things getting in the way of fixing that: a lack of child care, a lack of affordable housing, and transportation. The biggest of these is child care.

In our upcoming report on the state of child care in Greater Minnesota after 2020, we’re going to look at why it’s harder to make the usual child care model work in rural areas, how the restrictions needed to control the spread of COVID also did a number on child care across the state, and ways to get the system working again so people can get back to work.

Even before last year, we were hearing more and more from employers struggling to find workers. They get a bite, and someone comes in for an interview for a key position. They might even accept the job and move their family to the community. Then they find out there’s no child care. Not just in that town, but within a 40- or 50-mile radius. So they say thanks but no thanks, and they leave. And the employer has to start the search all over again. This is no way to run an economy.

The number of child care providers in Minnesota has been on a downward slide since 2000 and in a free fall since 2010, especially in Greater Minnesota. Then 2020 happened. Between restrictions on group sizes and parents keeping their kids home, child care providers struggled to stay afloat and still stay open for essential workers’ families, while other families struggled to balance work and kids. 

There are a lot of opinions on the causes of the crisis, but in my opinion, it’s pretty simple: the economics of it don’t work. At least, the economics don’t work for most places. Making money in child care depends greatly on population density. If your child care business is located in a population sweet spots—a place with enough potential customers (kids) within a reasonable radius with a high enough income to comfortably afford the rate you need to cover your expenses, you can make a profit.

And those expenses are important, too. Child care is a highly regulated industry, leaving providers little control over their expenses. Without subsidy programs from the state and federal government to help out, in most parts of the state, parents’ incomes wouldn’t be high enough to pay providers enough to cover the cost of cribs and toys, learning supplies, food, and in the case of centers, staff. When this happens, the child care providers must eventually close their doors, and those areas eventually become child care deserts. It’s as true in the middle of the city as in a rural region. 

Child care makes it possible for both parents to go to work. Problems with finding or hanging onto child care is the single biggest factor affecting an employee’s productivity and the single biggest reason for absenteeism. The pandemic made that painfully clear.

Quality child care is also important for giving kids their best start on the path to becoming adults. We need an educated workforce going into the future. If our little future workers don’t get started on the right foot now, they run the risk of falling behind their peers and having a harder time catching up.

COVID-19 focused a spotlight on child care and made its problems impossible to ignore. To get people back to work, we’re going to have to come up with some ways to fix this fundamental piece of economic infrastructure. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to take some compromise, but there are things that can be done to help, and it’s going to take all of us. If we want our economy to recover and grow, including in rural areas, if we want a skilled and educated future workforce, and if we want women to continue working—because let’s face it, the burden of child care still falls more on women—we are going to have to agree on a few things:

  • That child care problems are an economic problem, not just a family problem.
  • That there is no single silver bullet, but there are several models that could be tried.
  • Employers have to get involved. They are starting to step up, but slowly. They are affected the most by the child care crisis and also benefit the most from having reliable quality child care available in their community.

As we learned from 2020, child care is our indispensable economic infrastructure. Without it, families suffer, businesses suffer and the economy suffers. If we want to get people back to work, we need to get our child care systems working, too.

Register here for our webinar on child care Thursday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 pm. We’ll be exploring the impact of COVID on child care businesses and the importance of getting child care working for our rural economy.