‘Alarming’ shortage of child care workers in Philadelphia prompts recruitment event

A mask sits next to a student as they complete a worksheet. The photo is zoomed in on the worksheet and the student’s hands.
Thursday’s ‘ECE Day of Hire’ has attracted more than 300 child care programs in Philadelphia seeking to counteract a staffing shortage. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Early childhood education providers are holding a site-by-site job fair on Thursday in a concerted attempt to counteract a staffing shortage that one state child care advocate has called “alarming.”

More than 300 child care programs in Philadelphia signed up as of Monday for the event, called “ECE Day of Hire.” 

“Basically, for lack of better words, we’re not getting the response and we’re not getting qualified candidates,” said Kelli Jackson, head of human resources at Porter’s Child Care Center in North Philadelphia.

Porter’s, which has been in the neighborhood for 40 years, is trying to hire at least three classroom aides so it can open two more classrooms. With a capacity of 230 children, it now has 150 and a waiting list, Jackson said.

The shortage of child care workers is so stark that directors could not leave for a centralized hiring event because they are needed to help staff classrooms, said Jackie Groetsch, the public policy field organizer for the early childhood advocacy group First Up. 

“That’s the severity of the problem, the directors, the owners, they don’t have the ability to leave their programs,” Groetsch said, because of the ratio of adults to children required by state standards. “They’ve been covering in classrooms.” 

According to a July survey by the advocacy organization Start Strong PA, 93% of Philadelphia child care providers said they had lost workers since the pandemic started. The 147 centers that responded said they closed 322 classrooms total, but had more than 1,800 children on a waiting list. If they were fully staffed, they could accommodate nearly 4,800 more children.

The picture is similarly bleak statewide, with 92% of providers reporting an inability to hire enough workers, according to the survey.

“They have lost staff. Child care workers have chosen to leave the industry at alarming rates and chosen to work for other sectors that are offering higher pay,” Groetsch said. Employers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, even McDonald’s, have increased wages to $15 and, in some cases, as much as $20 an hour, while the average hourly wage in the child care industry in Pennsylvania is about $11.

“Right now we have families ready to go back to work, but the programs have to say no, we don’t have enough staff,” Groetsch said. 

The participating centers in the daylong event will decorate their entrances with something yellow — balloons or ribbons, most likely — because that is the color used by the state’s Keystone Stars rating system for early childhood education. To earn up to four stars, centers must meet standards for staffing, operations and curriculum.

Child care centers can’t afford to increase wages for workers due to what Groetsch called a “broken” funding system. The sector “is underfunded by state and local governments,” she said, resulting in a situation where costs for parents are high at the same time that pay for workers is relatively low. 

That could change if President Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act is enacted with the $450 billion he proposes to include for child care over 10 years. First Up is among the advocacy organizations saying this could enable programs to raise salaries to levels that are more competitive with other industries.

Passage of the legislation would be a “game changer,” Groetsch said. A federal investment could “ensure that parents are paying less for child care but that programs are receiving funding to cover the full cost of providing care,” Groetsch said. 

The child care industry in Philadelphia and around the region is sprawling and diverse, run by a mix of government entities and private businesses. It is paid for by a combination of private tuition payments and public subsidies, many of which target the neediest families. 

Even before the pandemic, the industry was struggling. When schools and child care programs were forced to shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the state used federal rescue funds to continue to pay subsidies to the centers based on their enrollment. This allowed them to pay employees, even though the centers were closed. 

But state aid was gradually cut back starting in September 2020, and staffers began looking for other employment. 

Without the ability to raise wages, competing in this job market is daunting, and Groetsch and others aren’t sure who will show up at the recruiting event for the wages being offered. 

She said possible recruits would include mothers with young children who want to return to the workforce, and would accept the wage because it would save them as much as $300 a week in their own child care costs. Another source of labor, she suggested, could be people who “may have had a past career and are looking to make a difference and have work to do that is rewarding and joyful.”

“Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work, but you can help shape young brains and interact with children,” she said. “If you want to work where you can get hugs and have little people happy to see you and who don’t want to leave, that’s the child care industry.” 

Jackson said that the minimum requirement for her center to keep its top rating from Keystone Stars is a high school diploma with two years of experience or a child development associate credential, or CDA, which can be obtained online and is the equivalent of nine college credits toward an early education degree.

“Our qualifications are somewhat higher than some other centers in the city,” she said.

Porter’s houses a Head Start program and a Pre-K Counts program in partnership with the city and school district. She hopes there will be a good turnout on Thursday to fill their open slots with qualified people. They have tried to increase the hourly wage to make the positions more attractive, she said, but still can’t compete with companies like Target and Walmart.

Plus, she said, a lot of people found employment during the pandemic that allowed them to work from home. Child care doesn’t provide that option.

”In some ways, the pandemic brought to the forefront issues of work-life balance,” she said. “If you can stay home and get paid, you can work from home two or three days a week; with those scenarios, the need for child care is a little less as well,” she said. 

Jackson hopes that the Day of Hire brings some serious candidates. She intends to advertise it on social media and update the website and the entry on Indeed, a jobs website, to emphasize that “there is no appointment needed, just come.” Given the need for workers, she said. “We’ll give it a shot.” 

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