Many early childhood educators—the individuals responsible for making employment possible for most parents—are leaving the workforce for good. Low pay, demanding work, and a lack of benefits are driving child care workers to other industries.
But the child care workforce is absolutely essential to the American economy—and to the individual pursuits of many parents. Without access to high-quality child care programs, parents are forced to make difficult decisions about joining or returning to the workforce, leading to long-term consequences for upward mobility and economic development.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the early childcare education sector was in crisis—however, the pandemic only exacerbated the situation and prompted many educators to make the decision to leave the industry entirely.
Although more than 560,000 people worked in child care in 2019, one-third of those jobs were lost at the start of the pandemic. Even as other industries have recovered, the child care services industry has continued to show downward growth: Between September and November of 2021, 4,500 jobs were lost—and another 3,700 in December alone.
These reductions in the child care workforce are both alarming for families and for the greater economy. Without access to high-quality and affordable child care, parents cannot join the workforce: one 2020 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that 58 percent of working parents reported leaving work because they were unable to find appropriate child care solutions.
Why are child care workers leaving the industry in such massive numbers? Lack of worthy wages, lack of benefits, and a consistent devaluation of the industry.
Lack of Worthy Wages
In most cities today, hourly wages at national chain stores or fast-food restaurants now rival the rate of child care workers. In 2021, McDonald’s raised the hourly rate for its U.S. restaurants by 10 percent—and the average wage for employees is expected to be $15 per hour by 2024.
In North Carolina, the latest report issued in November of 2020 found that starting wages for child care center professionals were approximately $10.50/hour. For workers at a 5-star center, teachers started at $13.46/hour and assistant teachers started at $11.51/hour. Family child care providers running their business from home made significantly less at just $9.09/hour—and yet many worked more than 40 hours per week with no benefits.
In Onslow County specifically, the latest report shows that the median starting wage for assistants is $9.00/hour and $10.25/hour for teachers.
Lack of Benefits
Child care workers are also unlikely to receive nonwage benefits: Just one-fifth of child care workers have health insurance and one in 10 child care workers have retirement benefits—however, over half of workers in the U.S. have employer-sponsored health insurance.
In North Carolina as of November 2020, less than half of North Carolina early childhood educators have access to healthcare coverage through their employers. Single site for-profit centers—the largest sector within the child care market—are the least likely to offer health care coverage.
Devaluation of the Profession
Historically, child care has been intertwined with ableism, sexism, xenophobia, and racism. Being a child care worker has been labeled as “women’s work” and it is a role that is predominantly performed by women who are immigrants or women of color.
In North Carolina, the constant devaluation of early childhood education is in part due to systemic inequity and injustice that continues to plague the field: 99 percent of early childhood educators are women and 47 percent are women of color.
Child care is an essential key to rebuilding the American economy and it requires a collaborative, comprehensive effort from policymakers and employers. To rebuild the American child care workforce—particularly in North Carolina and Onslow County—early childhood educators need more support, including:
At One Place, our Child Care Resource and Referral Program educates parents and caregivers on high-quality licensed and regulated early education centers, providing information on available options in Onslow County. We also provide early childhood educator trainings and support. Learn more here.