Worker shortages: Is access to child care a key solution?

Courtesy of Moore Community House
Participants in the Women in Construction program run by Moore Community House in Biloxi, Mississippi, train to work in the skilled trades in August. WinC pays for six months of child care for enrolled mothers, and has graduated more than 700 women since it began in 2008.

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Brianna Crusoe, a mother from D’Iberville, Mississippi, set her sights on being an electrician after a union leader visited the Women in Construction initiative she was attending. The program offered her child care for six months while she trained and entered the profession. 

“They know how it is a struggle to have a child and work without child care,” she says about WinC, which she graduated from in 2018. She’s now an electrical apprentice who appreciates having a 401(k) and health insurance.

Why We Wrote This

Matching parents with child care is an idea that some groups serving the trades are using to woo women to their ranks. Could it work for other U.S. industries facing shortages as well?

As employers try to get a grasp on labor shortages, child care is an important piece of the puzzle. Within the skilled trades, open jobs and an aging workforce have prompted some groups, pre-pandemic and now, to focus on recruiting women and assisting with child care. Organizers say such initiatives are vital, but difficult and expensive to run. They welcome federal assistance if the Biden administration’s Build Back Better provisions are passed. But even without that funding, the growing emphasis on child care suggests that the trades, like other industries, are trying to fill open jobs by wooing and supporting workers who are parents.  

“I love what I do,” says Ms. Crusoe. “It feels good to tell someone I have the experience to fix electricity.”

Brianna Crusoe no longer frets about how she’ll provide for herself and her two young children after moving from a low-paying casino job into a union electrical apprenticeship with a strong salary and benefits.

Ms. Crusoe, from D’Iberville, Mississippi, is a graduate of the Women in Construction (WinC) program sponsored by the nonprofit Moore Community House, which paid for six months of child care while she trained and entered a skilled trade.

“They know how it is a struggle to have a child and work without child care,” says Ms. Crusoe, about WinC, which she graduated from in 2018. She’s now an electrical apprentice who appreciates having a 401(k), health insurance, and a job with above-state-average wages.

Why We Wrote This

Matching parents with child care is an idea that some groups serving the trades are using to woo women to their ranks. Could it work for other U.S. industries facing shortages as well?

Around the United States, other trade groups are emulating programs like WinC as they try to add more women to their ranks. In Boston, a coalition of labor and community groups launched a pilot program in September 2020 that helps trade workers find child care for nontraditional hours. A program in Oregon provides child care subsidies for those enrolled in pre-apprenticeship programs. 

As employers try to get a grasp on current labor shortages, child care is an important piece of the puzzle. Women have left the labor market at higher rates than men since March 2020. Recovery in the child care sector lags other industries. Child care provisions in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan are popular in polls, even as Democrats’ ability to pass the spending bill remains in doubt.

Within the skilled trades, labor shortages and an aging workforce have prompted some groups, pre-pandemic and now, to focus on recruiting women and assisting with child care. Organizers say such initiatives are vital, but difficult and expensive to run. They welcome federal investment in child care if the Build Back Better provisions are passed. Even without that funding, the growing emphasis on child care suggests that the trades, like other industries, are trying to fill open jobs by wooing and supporting workers who are parents. 

“Child care has been a particular barrier for women, especially for single moms who get into this industry, so we want to make it easy for them to surmount that,” says Mary Vogel, executive director of Building Pathways, a pre-apprenticeship program in Boston, and one of the founding members of the city’s new child care coalition.

Courtesy of Brianna Crusoe
Brianna Crusoe, a mother of two, graduated from Women in Construction in 2018. She's now an apprentice with an electrical union in Mississippi.

Researchers debate exactly how much a lack of child care is impacting current labor shortages in the overall economy, with other factors such as early retirements also at play. But a lack of affordable and quality child care has been a longstanding barrier for mothers who wish to participate in the workforce. 

“It’s fair to say you can’t pin child care on the entire issue of what’s going on with the economic recovery, but … high child care prices have been a barrier for people who want to work outside the home for decades,” says Sam Abbott, a family economic security policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. 

In the trades, efforts to help with child care are showing some success. 

“The program has pushed employers in our area to pay more attention to gender equity, and to be more willing to hire women,” says Carol Burnett, executive director of Moore Community House, which runs the WinC program. 

WinC has graduated more than 700 women since it began in 2008. A majority of participants are low-income single mothers of color, and 74% of program graduates have found industry jobs.   

Trying to recruit more women

More women serve in skilled trades than ever before, yet represent a small percentage of overall trade workers, according to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a think tank in Washington. In 2020, women made up 4% of construction-trade workers, with about 300,000 women in trades jobs. A forthcoming 2021 survey of current women in the trades by IWPR found that 63% of respondents were mothers.

Women aren’t competing against men for scarce trade jobs. There were 344,000 job openings in construction in the U.S. in August 2021, compared with 250,000 the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2021 report by Angi (formerly Angie’s List), found that 77% of tradespeople think there’s a labor shortage, compared with 71% the year before. 

“There is a need to replace skilled workers because of demographic change, and what you’ve gotten over the last five years or so, is the industry has become more diverse,” including more women from across different racial and ethnic backgrounds, says Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings at IWPR. 

Courtesy of Moore Community House
Women in Construction participants take a break from their training in May in Biloxi, Mississippi.

In Boston, a group of labor and community groups launched a pilot child care program for trade workers called “Care That Works” in September 2020. They established a network of child care providers who agreed to offer nontraditional child care hours in exchange for a monthly stipend.

The providers open as early as 5 a.m. to accommodate trade parents. In exchange, providers receive a monthly $700 stipend from the coalition. Parents don’t receive funding for their child care costs, but get help finding care providers. 

The pilot program is scheduled to run for three years and in September received a $300,000 grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health, a philanthropic arm of Boston Children’s Hospital. Funding also comes from coalition partners and the city of Boston. In its first year, 10 child care providers enrolled in the program and five families participated. 

Men have also benefited from the assistance. Two of the first five parents to enroll in the Boston trades child care pilot were single fathers. 

Ajay Chaudry, a research scholar at New York University and co-author of “Cradle to Kindergarten,’’ says national child care policies haven’t yet caught up with general labor patterns, but might if child care subsidies and universal pre-K are passed by Congress. Both are designed to lower child care costs for families and raise wages for child care workers. 

“As much as we want to say [child care] is a family responsibility, we’ve had an untenable situation that hasn’t supported our modern economy and modern workforce and the disconnect between those families who can afford to invest in their kids and those who can’t has become more apparent,” Dr. Chaudry says. 

Rachel Greszler at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, disagrees about the impact of President Biden’s proposed child care policies, writing in an October report that subsidies “would do nothing to help the majority of families that prefer family-based childcare, and could limit options by crowding out smaller, faith-based, and more accommodating childcare providers.” 

The goal: economic security

The WinC program in Biloxi is especially geared toward Mississippi’s single mothers, 75% of whom are in the workforce, but are often caught in low-income jobs, says Ms. Burnett of Moore Community House. She sees construction, with its solid salaries and benefits, as a solution for breaking cycles of poverty among some single moms and their families. 

Single moms need more than just child care, says Ms. Burnett. “They also need to earn a decent wage. If they are getting child care just so they can go to a minimum wage job, that’s only taking them part way to economic security.” 

Ms. Crusoe, the electrician apprentice in Mississippi, says her WinC training classes were “sweaty, challenging, and fun.” She got into electrical work after a leader in a local electrical union visited her program. 

Even so, life in the trades isn’t always easy. Ms. Crusoe says she’s faced sexism on the job, and child care remains tricky. She was laid off from one electrical job for leaving work to pick up her sick son, she says, and took a leave of absence from her apprenticeship to care for her kids during the pandemic. 

She told her union in September that she’s ready for new work now that her son is enrolled in kindergarten and she expects to complete her apprenticeship in the spring of 2023.

“I love what I do. It feels good to tell someone I have the experience to fix electricity,” she says. But she wants trade leaders to focus more on equality and offer flexibility when women need to tend to their kids. “They need to have a better understanding that people are full-time [workers], but sometimes people need to be a mother.”

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