When the Bough Breaks, Part 5: The Challenges and Innovations in Early Childhood Workforce

April 1, 2022

When the Bough Breaks: Systems Change in Early Child Care

In our ongoing exploration of the early education and care ecosystem in Greater Boston, the When the Bough Breaks series continued on April 1 with a conversation among leaders in the field working on elemental change.

The Boston Foundation’s Education Program Associate Danubia Camargos Silva introduced researcher Kimberly Lucas to lead a discussion with Lindsay McCluskey, Senior Strategist at Community Labor United, and Wayne Ysaguirre, an early childhood and nonprofit strategic leadership consultant and member of the Boston Fed Community Development Advisory Board. Together they explored lessons they have learned in researching and trying to make systemic changes.

Click here to watch the webinar

Research shows that child care ranks with housing costs and the “cliff effect” (losing benefits when earnings go above a certain level) as the top reasons why working women, especially single mothers, struggle to get out of poverty. McCluskey, working with women in unions and community organizers, has tackled the care issue through Care That Works, a three-year pilot program in Boston to provide affordable childcare during nonstandard work hours. Having child care available as early as 5:00 a.m. allows women to train for and pursue careers in lucrative fields like construction, where there is now a push to diversify the workforce—specifically to include more women. But getting providers to take the risk of a major schedule change is not easy. McCluskey hopes the pilot will inform policy on how to incentivize providers to offer such services.

Ysaguirre is working on the system from the talent side. Even before COVID-19, talent—that is, the child-care workers themselves—were leaving the field faster than replacements could be found. And demand is only rising, with Baby Boomers aging into their own care needs and Millennials now having babies. Besides the chronically low pay in the field (or because of it), there’s a shortage of candidates, some of whom lack professional or “soft” skills which often leads to rapid turnover, and the hiring process itself is so slow that other industries snap people up. “We need a pipeline of talent and an infrastructure to train and employ that talent,” he said. “But we have to focus beyond workers, too. How can we get employers better at keeping workers?”

In both their approaches to changing the system, McCluskey and Ysaguirre agree that many parties must co-invest. Joining forces with employers, unions like SEIU 509, workforce developers like JVS, community colleges and others will be essential.

But child care is unique in how intensely important the relationship between “customer” and “provider” is. Care That Works found this when a digital platform didn’t really suit the need for connecting parents and providers. One thing her team learned is that the maxim “If you build it, they will come” is not necessarily true. The process of creating connections between families and providers turned out to be very hands on with a high number of touch points, requiring a lot of time, attention and care. “What people really want is to talk to someone, be heard, and develop trust,” said McCluskey. That includes trust between people but also between people and organizations. Ysaguirre agreed, saying, “If we are going to scale we have to go beyond personal relationships. We need to build systems that create and support that sense of trust.”

And systems do need to change. Ysaguirre made no bones about saying the current system isn’t “broken,” but rather is doing what it was designed to do. Which is to minimize or limit women’s access to careers. “Men,” he said, “or let’s say, politicians—but at the time, they were almost all men—designed or at least approved systems that assume 1) child care is women’s work and 2) it doesn’t require much skill.” So we ended up with this very fragmented and underfunded and inefficient system that’s been hard to change. But, he added, “There are established systems change processes to identify leverage points that drive change. We need to invest in those processes.” To that investment McCluskey would add giving parents and providers more decision-making power in the systems. And in closing, moderator Lucas reminded us of the curb-cut phenomenon, where solving for the most marginalized brings benefits for all.

The next Early Childhood Coffee & Conversation will be on May 6, 2022.