Ask any local elected leader about their top priorities and they will likely tell you about workforce development and quality jobs that help workers provide for their families. While early childhood education may not be the next thing you immediately think of, there are several important connections between the role of early childhood and a city’s workforce development efforts.
1. Early childhood programs support the current workforce. Without the peace of mind that comes with knowing one’s child is in a high-quality early learning environment, parents are not able to go to work and be productive employees. Too many parents struggle to maintain stable employment because they lack access to reliable, safe and affordable child care.
2. Early childhood programs build a strong future workforce. Key social and emotional skills are developed during the first five years of a child’s life. These foundational skills help youth and adults succeed throughout their lives.
3. Early childhood programs are made possible by the early childhood workforce. None of the benefits that occur when children experience high-quality early childhood education would be possible without the hard-working professionals that educate and care for young children. These professionals need adequate professional development, supports, and wages that allow them to foster strong practices in the classroom and support their own families.
At two recent events, the National League of Cities (NLC) had the opportunity to highlight the important ways that early childhood experiences contribute to workforce development and ultimately a thriving city.
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Over the past two years, the NLC Institute for Youth, Education and Families (YEF Institute) has provided in-depth technical assistance to cities to help them deepen local support for early childhood educators in their communities as part of the Cities Supporting the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative. In April, NLC brought together leaders from eight cities for a meeting in Memphis, Tennessee and Oxford, Mississippi, to learn from one another, spotlight best practices and hear from experts.
At this meeting, mayors of cities throughout Mississippi shared why they believe early childhood policies and programs should be part of any municipal agenda. Mayor Hal Marx of Petal said that a thriving school district and a quality early childhood development center in Petal helps attract families to move in to his city, which in turn spurs economic development and attracts a strong workforce.
Mayor Jason Shelton of Tupelo said he sees an important role for local government when it comes to early childhood education, even if a city does not control their school district: as early childhood’s biggest cheerleader who can help generate buy-in across the city.
The convening also included a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, as well as an address from a long-time leader at the University of Mississippi about how the University is grappling with their history of racial inequality. These visits generated thought-provoking conversations for meeting participants, and reflections on how they can better incorporate racial equity in their local early childhood work.
We must center equity in any discussion of early childhood, the early childhood workforce and workforce development. King was in Memphis on the day he was assassinated supporting a strike by Black sanitation workers to advocate for better working conditions.
One meeting participant noted the parallels to members of the early childhood workforce, who often faces stressful, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and low pay. As a workforce that is disproportionately made up of women of color, advancing better working conditions and pay for the early childhood workforce is a matter of equity.
As part of this same initiative, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren’s Office hosted an Early Childhood Workforce Summit in April to spotlight the importance of early childhood professionals. At this summit, Warren noted that her administration has taken many steps to increase young children’s access to early childhood opportunities but acknowledged that there has not been enough focus on early childhood educators.
As a first step, her office recently held an Explore Careers in Education career fair at city hall, in partnership with the Rochester City School District and seven local colleges. At this event, local high school students who have expressed an interest in a career in the field of early childhood education were given an opportunity to come to City Hall and meet with representatives from area colleges that offer various early childhood education degrees.
In addition to the mayor’s remarks, a panel of employers in Rochester spoke about their decision to actively support their employees’ child care needs, whether by offering on-site child care or providing summer camp and other out-of-school time opportunities for their employees’ children. These employers quickly realized that finding reliable and affordable child care often ranked among their employees’ top concerns and that any investment they made in early childhood education for their employees’ children would enhance their bottom line as a business.
At the end of the Summit, participants had the chance to break in to small discussion groups to brainstorm solutions for stronger support of the early childhood workforce locally. One small group focused on the connections between supports for the early childhood workforce and the future of work.
Participants brainstormed innovative solutions such as leveraging workforce development funding from the state to provide professional development for early childhood educators, enlisting new partners in this work, such as the U.S. Department of Labor, and broadening our definition of the early childhood workforce to include home-based providers, including informal family, friend and neighbor providers, especially when more parents are choosing this care option as more jobs have variable hours and schedules.
We can’t have the conversation about workforce development and pathways to post-secondary and workforce success without beginning where it all begins: with early childhood. To learn more about NLC’s work with city leaders to support the early childhood workforce, please visit our website.
About the author: Alana Eichner is the Early Childhood Senior Associate in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.