NMF president announces Building Better Lives initiative, ends up hearing a lot of concerns and answering a lot of questions about the child care shortage

    Nancy Vyskocil chose her words carefully. At this week’s meeting of the Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) Board of Directors, the president and CEO of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation was detailing the NMF’s “Building Better Lives” initiative, and in the process of explaining it, she listed among the initiative’s goals growing “quality child care” capacity in the rural communities the Foundation serves. By 2024, Vyskocil noted, Building Better Lives looked to add 1,000 new child care slots throughout the region.

    She talked about all kind of other things the NMF is doing, as a whole and also through Building Better Lives, but around a half-hour later, Vyskocil still found herself fielding questions in the full Valley Technology Park conference room about child care, and how an ongoing shortage of licensed slots continues to hinder Crookston’s growth.

    And that’s when Vyskocil chose her next comment with special care.

    “I have to tell you…how to best put this?” she said. “You know how serious this problem is, when a room full of, shall we say, older gentlemen is so concerned. Clearly this is a crippling problem.”
    
Daunting task

    The NMF’s research calculates that the region it serves is around 3,000 short in licensed child care slots. Crookston leaders in looking to tackle the problem with various partners and stakeholders have been hoping to add around 140 more slots, and while there have been some small victories here and there, City Administrator Shannon Stassen said that with longtime providers retiring and others choosing to leave the business for other reasons, it’s possible that the net gain of licensed slots is around zero, or there might even be a further reduction.

    Since Building Better Lives launched, Vyskocil said the Foundation estimates that around 700 child care spots have been added in the region. Most have been up north, in the Lake of the Woods area, though, she said, although she said gains have been made in the McIntosh area. She said the Foundation launched forgivable child care loans in July, and the pot of money has already been allocated.

    A trio of factors are making the shortage so especially hard to tackle, Vyskocil said. For one, she explained, “the economy is too damn good.” As a result, “You can get a job that pays better and pays benefits practically walking down the street anywhere,” she explained. Secondly, child care is simply really hard, demanding work with long hours, she said, with an average provider taking home around $20,000 a year with no benefits. Then, third, are the regulations. “It’s just very, very tough,” Vyskocil said. “You battle with all these regulations as you try to start a business, but then you can get a job with better benefits that lets you still have sort of a life. It’s tough to compete with.”

    She figures around 60 percent of the shortage is due to the difficult work, low pay and lack of benefits, and the remaining 40 percent is due to overburdensome regulations.

    The Foundation is talking with large businesses about potentially providing in-house child care, but there are many issues to be considered with that, Vyskocil said. The Foundation is also focused on both home day cares and center-based child care operations, but the additional regulations for actual centers are so much more stringent, she said, that it makes them an extremely difficult proposition anywhere outside a major metropolitan area. “It’s just tough to cash-flow centers in more rural areas without some form of subsidy,” she added.

    The NMF is seeking a state approach to child care regulations, Vyskocil explained, that is more consistent than it is now, which goes in a county-by-county basis. “We hear a lot of horror stories from providers, just on the regulation side, and you can see how it would lead someone, even someone who wants to work with children, concluding that there’s not enough money in the world to make them do this,” she said. “…We need consistent enforcement of the rules so child care providers know what they’re up against.”

    Lots of longtime providers are retiring, and younger providers get into the business until their children reach school age and then they get out. Vyskocil said the Foundation is working to encourage more “mid-career” people to get into the industry and stick with it by coming up with a more workable business model. Part of that is building in some respite for providers so they can catch their breath now and then and even recharge. “You have to be able to take some time away, a day off even, and have someone able to step in and pick up the slack,” she said. “…This is a business; I obviously think children should be taken care of well, but there has to be an actual economic model that would work for this. There needs to be a way to actually put food on the table as well.”

    That goes for food for the child care providers’ families, but also for the children they care for. The food reimbursement program for child care providers, Vyskocil said, confounds the mind. “You take a deeper dive and it’s just bizarre,” she explained. “It’s all dependent on various factors, but when you get down to it, it’s literally pennies on the dollar, and that is all very important to a small provider that is hoping to make anything close to a livable wage.”

    Even during less extreme shortages, infant child care slots are always at a premium, and Stassen said that’s especially true now, with providers limited in how many infants they can take on. Money is a driving factor, too, he added. “(Infant care) is where the need is, but the money is made on three and four year olds, so (the providers) don’t want the infants, understandably,” Stassen said.

    Infant care needs to be the “feeder program” for continued child care, Vyskocil said. “You take them in, care for them, and there’s your pipeline as they get older and you keep it going,.” she said.

    She said she’s excited about where Building Better Families will be in six years as it strives to support children and families. “Communities aren’t strong if families aren’t strong,” Vyskocil noted. “If we don’t have child care, people aren’t working and businesses aren’t operating fully.”