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Business & Economics

Grow North seeks to bolster local workforce by addressing childcare

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Affordable childcare is not easy to find in the Northwoods. In the wake of the pandemic, it’s not getting any easier. That’s why Grow North hosted a community discussion on Friday to find innovative solutions to the childcare challenge.

Jessica Marshall is primary care physician with Marshfield Clinic.

She’s also a mother.

She and her husband both work full time, so they rely on daycare. But that hasn’t been easy to find.

“My options here are extremely limited,” she says.

For a while, Marshall commuted from her job and home in Merrill to drop her kids off at a center in Rhinelander. It was her only available option.

“It was a long time in the car,” she says.

She has reduced her hours at Marshfield Clinic to work around the center’s availability, and at times finagled her mom and mother-in-law to help with childcare, even though they also work full-time jobs.

Even this system is fragile.

“Now I just am afraid that at any point they’re just going to cut the hours or say, ‘hey, your son’s classroom is closed because we don’t have a teacher today.’ It’s not a very stable situation,” she says.

Why childcare centers are shutting down

Marshall is not the only parent in this position.

According to the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, more than 70 percent of rural Wisconsin is a childcare desert, meaning there’s only one licensed childcare slot available for at least three kids younger than 5 years old.

In the past ten years, the state has lost about 16,000 licensed childcare slots.

The situation has gotten worse since the pandemic, when shifting demand and rising costs forced thousands of childcare providers across the country out of the industry.

Gayle Wilmot knows what that’s like. She ran a childcare center in Rhinelander for nearly twenty years, but shut down her business in the aftermath of COVID-19.

“With the costs associated with the childcare industry, the fluctuation due to ramifications of COVID, the industry itself just changing, the break-even point was just not where I could sustain my business,” she says.

Wilmot says childcare providers face a unique challenge. If they raise rates, their services become unaffordable to parents. But not doing so makes rising costs impossible to cover.

That left her with little other option than to shut down. But now parents in the area have even fewer childcare options.

How local organizations are working together to find solutions

The availability of childcare has ramifications on the local workforce and the regional economy, so Grow North, a regional economic development corporation, is trying to facilitate solutions to address the issue.

Brittany Beyer is Grow North’s executive director. She says, at a time when so many businesses are facing a labor shortage, finding a sustainable solution for affordable childcare is crucial.

“We are keenly aware that there are plenty of employees that are staying away from full employment because they can’t find childcare,” she says. “In a moment right now, where we have historical low unemployment, that really becomes a crucial issue to solve in order to get as many people into the workforce as possible.”

Grow North is connecting local childcare providers and parents with Wisconsin’s Early Childhood Association and other resources.

The hope is that everyone will work together to find a long-term solution to providing affordable childcare, whether by recruiting more providers through federal COVID relief funding or encouraging employers to offer childcare benefits.

Solutions won’t come easily, Beyer says, but change is necessary to meet northern Wisconsin’s workforce and family needs.

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