Southwest Virginia has a serious problem to solve. Over the past two years, our workforce has been drained of talented young employees while the earning power of families here has been stunted.
How? ‘Or’ What? The economic downturn has forced the closure of several daycares in the region. Child care centres, after all, face the same challenges as any business. About 8 out of 10 are currently understaffed. And, while the availability of slots in the region has declined, inflation and supply chain issues have created a net increase in the cost of care. In this child care environment, when schools reopened, many parents (mostly mothers) simply stayed home.
United Way of Southwest Virginia believes we need to expand access to affordable, quality child care, strengthen the current network of providers, and build a workforce of professional early childhood educators if our regional economy must recover in due course.
A few keys: First, it cannot simply be a government program. While the increased influence of our region’s legislative delegation in Richmond is good news – and we will be depending on these legislators and Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration to help get this effort started – it is primarily about handing over the companies in a position to create the well-paying jobs that will allow parents to once again pay for childcare while they work. Thus, the private sector must play a key role in the creation and execution of this strategy.
Second, the strategy must be sustainable over the long term. It can only benefit parents and large employers, otherwise it will fall like a two-legged stool. It should also address issues faced by child care providers. Most cannot afford to pay their employees a living wage, but we entrust them with what is most precious, our children. That being said, if the government were to simply impose a certain wage on child care providers, then the increased costs would have to be passed on to families. Instead, a way to reduce the other costs of running a child care business — and to do business more efficiently — is needed to help make quality child care centers more sustainable.
Third, this effort must benefit all areas of southwestern Virginia. Our region faces a much greater childcare shortage than the Commonwealth as a whole. It’s two to three times worse here, depending on which stats you’re referring to. This means that our economic recovery will be much slower than that of the rest of Virginia unless we solve our child care problem.
To that end, United Way of Southwest Virginia announced in December the creation of Ready SWVA, a public-private partnership based on all the principles you just read.
Ready SWVA will create a system of five private child care centers located throughout the region, including a hub in Washington County and four spokes. Each of these centers will provide additional child care slots in their community. The hub will include a shared services center that will operate as a single back office for each existing daycare center in Southwest Virginia that chooses to participate, creating cost savings and increasing efficiency.
To be clear, United Way of Southwest Virginia will not be operating child care centers. We will not become a supplier. Through Ready SWVA, we will help develop spaces and facilities for private sector partners to operate and expand.
A renewed and innovative approach to the early childhood network in Southwest Virginia will form the foundation for all industrial and commercial sectors. We believe this will be a model to be replicated across the Commonwealth and beyond.
Travis Staton is President and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia.