By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — West Michigan cities are primed for growth, but local business leaders say a shortage of quality infant and toddler care is holding it up.
In Traverse City, it’s a struggle to attract qualified care providers, said Mary Manner, the Great Start coordinator for Venture North Funding, a nonprofit economic development organization serving Grand Traverse, Wexford, Emmet, Manistee, Leelanau, Antrim, Charlevoix, Benzie, Missaukee and Kalkaska counties.
An estimated 1,520 Grand Traverse County infants and toddlers need care, while “quality” providers in the county have only 386 openings, according to a recent study commissioned by Networks Northwest, a regional workforce development group.
In addition to the general shortage, major industries in the Traverse City area have diverse and specific unmet needs, Manner said.
Access to infant care is a persistent challenge for the region’s seasonal agricultural workers, she said. They often work long hours outside of the “normal” child care availability from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Health care organizations also have to address the lack of child care providers to attract physicians and specialists. The regional Munson Medical Center offers on-site child care of its own.
The problem? The hospital’s program struggles to find enough qualified staff, just like any other provider in the area, Manner said.
“That’s one of the first questions that young doctors have: ‘What kind of child care do you have?’” she said. “That can be a stopper for a lot of people moving into the area when they realize they can’t find the type of care they want for their child — or care at all.”
Insufficient child care is a sign of a “labor workforce shortage” across a region that has become attractive to businesses, she said. There aren’t enough workers to meet demand in pretty much every industry in the growing area, a common problem for lakeshore towns with skyrocketing housing values.
“Everybody’s hiring,” Manner said. “There’s a lot of wage competition, even at places like McDonald’s, to try and get people.”
As Traverse City has grown into a hub for tourism and agriculture, the child care industry hasn’t kept up, said Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.
Holland and Grand Rapids face similar “prosperity problems” stemming from their rapid growth and popularity, Calley said.
There is a need to keep a close eye on a field so closely involved with small children, he said. But driving the shortage are “unnecessarily restrictive” regulations placed on the child care industry.
The association advocated loosening those regulations during the last legislative session and has notified Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of its desire to continue working on the issue.
Manner said a state requirement of at least one caretaker for every four children younger than 30 months is a barrier to keeping up with demand. Illinois allows up to eight children per caretaker for that age limit. Ohio allows seven, Wisconsin allows six, and Indiana allows five.
“A lot of people just don’t like to take kids at that age,” Manner said. “They’re very expensive because of the staffing ratios. We don’t have the workforce that we need in Northern Michigan. There aren’t enough people with the right credentials or qualifications.”
But child care experts warn that cutting staffing requirements is not the solution.
Increasing the four-to-one ratio for children younger than 2½ could come at the expense of the quality of care, said Najwa Dahdah, the owner of Empowered Child Care Consulting in Shelby Township.
“When you have bottle-feeding, crying, diapering, it’s impossible to keep up” with more than four infants, Dahdah said. “You wouldn’t be able to get that attachment, that relationship. It can take away from a lot of their individual needs.”
Dahdah proposed that the state work more closely with existing providers to address their individual needs to ensure quality care, rather than simply enacting more regulations.
Michigan child “caregivers” — staff members who provide direct supervision and education of children — are presently required to receive safe sleep, blood-borne pathogen, first aid and CPR trainings. They must attend 16 additional professional development hours annually.
Further training is required for educational program directors, site supervisors and lead caregivers.
Child care may not seem like a “traditional business issue” for the Small Business Association, Calley said. But it’s an essential factor in driving business growth.
And, after all, child care providers are small businesses too.
“Child care facilities have to operate inside of a very narrow box,” he said. “It’s not within our competencies to say, ‘Here’s what the ideal child care system would look like.’ But what we put on the table … was a desire to work with (the governor’s office) on developing a child care licensure system that allows for expansion.”
Until a legislative or regulatory solution can be reached, Manner said more employers will look to offer child care subsidies in employee benefit packages.
“Businesses appreciate how important quality care is for kids and the impact that it has on their employees, who are more reliable and more productive” when they have it, Manner said. “It’s a complex problem, and it’s going to take solutions coming from a variety of places to increase capacity and access.”