Early Childhood

Help needed, not just help wanted. NC’s child care staffing crisis.

October 28, 2021
By: John Lumpkin, MD, MPH

Parents who have relied on the early childhood care and education system will tell you that high-quality and reliable programs allow children to learn and grow among their peers, all while under the supervision of qualified teachers and support staff. The nurturing and collaborative environments created by dedicated care providers across the state give kids the opportunity to establish the social, developmental, and interpersonal skills they’ll rely on for the rest of their lives.

There is also the reality that child care providers are a critical engine in our state’s economy. Simply put, all sectors – from business to government to health care and everything in between – need employees in order to keep their doors open, and employees need child care in order to work. Early educators are truly “the workforce behind the workforce.”

Yet, early educators remain among the most under-compensated professionals in the economy given the social importance of their profession and difficulty of their job. This inadequate compensation is at the root of the staffing crisis that existed prior to the pandemic, but that has deepened dramatically in recent months. This labor shortage is threatening the viability of care centers and businesses across the state.

More than 80 percent of surveyed care providers say that it is more difficult to hire and retain qualified staff now than it was before the pandemic.

A recent survey of North Carolina child care programs funded by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation illustrates just how concerning the staffing crisis is for the child care system and the state’s economy.

More than 80 percent of surveyed care providers say that it is more difficult to hire and retain qualified staff now than it was before the pandemic. The staffing crisis has forced one-third of providers to temporarily close their classrooms with little notice to parents. The disruptions affect our children and send parents, and other primary caregivers, scrambling.

Child care providers have made efforts to shore up this staffing crisis by offering teachers and staff higher wages and additional benefits. Yet, these increases are small, and many program operators openly acknowledge that the wages they’re able to offer staff are comparable to those in sectors where employment requires far less education, training, or responsibility.

In large part this crisis is driven by a market failure. Child care centers are desperate for staff as personnel leave for higher pay. Unfortunately, the child care system is unable to generate the revenue needed to increase educator pay. Families can’t afford increased rates.  According to Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of center-based infant care in North Carolina ($9,254/year) is $2,000 more than the average tuition at the state’s public four-year universities ($7,220/year).  Add to this the fact that COVID-related safety measures and staffing requirements have increased expenses for centers, which further affects their financial stability. As one child care operator explained, it's a never-ending juggling of priorities between staff, children, or the business, and never a full balance between all, as it should be.

Recognizing this market failure, other countries across the globe invest dramatically more money in child care than the United States. However, that appears to be changing. State policymakers recently tapped into newly allocated federal funds – upwards of $800 million – to temporarily shore up the industry. This essential stop-gap funding will be used for a range of needs including personnel costs, but also rent, personal protective equipment, and supplies. It is meant to stabilize the industry in the short-term, during the recovery from COVID-19, but it does not address the market failure and chronic underfunding facing the state’s child care industry. For that we’ll need bigger, more sustained solutions. Congress is currently considering a massive and permanent infusion of resources for child care that could change the market forces that keep teacher wages low and parental costs high.

The challenges facing North Carolina’s child care sector were not born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were certainly amplified by it. A historically underfinanced system needs to be rebuilt to serve North Carolina’s growing workforce and economy through the recovery and beyond. That will take the federal and state government working in tandem and alongside key stakeholders to identify and fund solutions that enable child care programs to hire and retain the qualified workforce needed to support healthy children and working parents.



About the Author

John Lumpkin is the President of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. Learn more about John.