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Child care 'trilemma': How it's affecting parents and staff alike in the industry

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Posted at 10:06 AM, May 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-10 11:06:14-04

NEENAH (NBC 26) — These days, most parents or expecting parents know that help is becoming challenging — and costly — to find.

Since the pandemic, childcare centers like Discover Little Miracles in Neenah have been in high demand. Owner Mike Kesselhon watched it happen.

“There were thousands of child care centers that closed through the pandemic, and closed permanently, and never reopened,” Kesselhon said.

But he also said that difficulty funding and finding child care is not a new development.

“It's really hard to match up staffing and enrollment needs… Sometimes it's very difficult to get staff because the economy might be doing very well," said Kesselhon. "On the other side of the coin, then you get into a situation where the economy isn't good, and you can get a situation where… enrollment becomes the issue. It's a rare thing when both of those things are working together at the same time.”

According to Discover Little Miracles' director, Cassie Knauer, the trouble keeping everyone in the childcare equation happy is a well-known phenomenon in the industry, and it has a name.

“We kind of call it like a ‘trilemma.’ The wages of employees, how expensive childcare is, and then the time and money that goes into childcare. They all just balance off of each other,” Knauer said.

Currently, child care is expensive and wages are high... but availability is low. It's becoming the new norm for expecting parents to apply for daycare waiting lists before their baby is even born.

“Right now, childcare in Wisconsin is insane. I mean, there are wait lists longer than a year," Knauer said. "There are families that just can't afford child care because the cost of child care has gone up so much. Families have had to no longer work in their personal job in their personal life because childcare is so expensive.”

Knauer knows that the expensive nature of the industry is a nonstarter for many parents who can't afford to return to work as a result.

“I get the financial side of it as well, being on administration, and the parents that do struggle with how expensive childcare is — I mean, it's outrageous. Some families work two jobs — mom and dad both work, but mom’s or dad’s wage just goes to cover child care. So, it is expensive. And at that point, they're just working for their kiddo to go to care," Knauer said.

“You wish you could change so many things, but there's only so much we can control from this standpoint. So, that's the hard part,” she added.

But increased costs for child care mean that employee wages are able to increase. Knauer said that this is important.

“A lot of childcare employees don't make a living wage. You don't come into this field expecting to be able to live on your own and balance out your personal finances," she said. "But then yet again, we're also sometimes — we're hitting the bank for many families.”

So, those who go into the childcare profession do the work because it is a passion, not because it is a high-paying career. But the pay is improving, with the current balance of the trilemma shifting.

“Staff and teachers, especially lead teachers, are about to the point where they could be getting a living wage. And I can say in our case that is about $15 an hour, where not too many years ago... our child care business was maybe $9 or $10 an hour,” said Kesselhon.

Other challenges come from the need to meet Wisconsin state rules that govern the industry. They dictate the square footage of a center, staff-to-child ratios by age, and qualifications that staff must have in order to be hired.

Child care isn't simply watching over playing children. There are educational and developmental elements as well. That's why applicants must meet minimum certification requirements before they can even be considered for staff.

“I get an application here or there or I get people that don't have any qualifications to work in childcare. And it's like, 'I can't help you,'” Knauer said.

Even when a person has put in the work to prepare to be hired, once on the job, it can be intense.

"Childcare is not easy, and it's a hard profession for people to come and do every day," Kesselhon said.

But the challenging nature is not a deterrent to those who love what they do.

“People bring their children here for a reason. We get to raise them, and it always takes a big person and a big heart to raise a little kid,” said Knauer.