Alaska’s child care sector, essential to economic recovery, is struggling to find workers

Originally published by Alaska Public Media and reprinted with permission.

At the new Cook Inlet Native Head Start building in Anchorage on a recent afternoon, Executive Director Qanglaagix Ethan Petticrew walked through one of the classrooms, designed to look like a traditional Native home.

He pointed out the LED lights glowing on the floor, like a fire pit, and a square cut into the cedar ceiling, like a smoke hole.

In many ways, he said, the room is all ready to welcome babies and toddlers next month. But there’s still one giant, missing piece.

“We need teachers,” Petticrew said. “We’re ready to take kids, I just don’t have staff. We are looking everywhere.”

Petticrew isn’t alone. Many child care providers in Alaska — and nationally — say they’re struggling to hire. That means fewer slots in early-childhood and after-school programs than there were before the pandemic, when the state was already strapped for child care.

It’s a stubborn challenge for working parents. And, it’s one economists say is likely among a complicated tangle of factors fueling the broader worker shortages across industries.

“We’re hearing people can’t go back to work because they don’t have child care. Yet, I can’t get people to come to work to take care of children,” Petticrew said. “So I don’t know what the answer is.”

‘We’re full and significantly understaffed’

Camp Fire Alaska, the state’s largest child care provider, is struggling, too.

The program normally has 28 locations for before- and after-school care for elementary students in Anchorage and Eagle River.

But now, there’s so few workers, they’re preparing to open just 10 or 12 sites in August, said Jill Brubaker, Camp Fire Alaska’s senior manager of marketing and communications.

That means Camp Fire will serve around 350 children, instead of the usual 1,100.

“Fall is going to be 35% of our normal capacity unless we can hire more staff,” Brubaker said. “We’ve never really had a shortage like this.”

She wishes she had better news for parents.

“It’s really hard when we can’t meet that need. We get emails from families who say, ‘I cant go back to work if you guys don’t open in my school, please open in my school,’” she said. “There’s a great sense of urgency, and I would even say panic.”

Child care providers say hiring has never been easy in the traditionally low-wage industry, but the pandemic has made it even harder

Depending on who you ask, the staffing shortages reached a crisis at different points in the pandemic.

For Petticrew and Brubaker, that crisis point is now.

The same goes for Christina Eubanks, executive director at Hillcrest Children’s Center in Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood.

“We’re full and significantly understaffed,” she said. “So our teachers are working 50-hour weeks.”

Hillcrest currently employs 16 teachers — down from its usual 22.

Eubanks said the center laid off staff last year, when the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shrink its capacity. Then when it ramped back up, many employees didn’t return.

Now, hardly anyone is applying for the open jobs.

“A year ago, I placed an ad for these positions, and I had close to 30 applicants,” said Eubanks. “This time I put the ad out, and I had one.”

‘A perfect storm’

There’s likely a list of factors behind the hiring trouble, according to child care providers.

For one, Eubanks said, she thinks some former staff reassessed their priorities during the pandemic, and have yet to rejoin the workforce or are looking for better-paying jobs.

Also, Brubaker said, some are struggling to find child care for their own kids, and can’t go back to work until they do.

“There’s kind of a perfect storm,” she said.

Petticrew also thinks some people may worry about teaching in a room of unvaccinated kids. Cook Inlet Native Head Start serves children up to kindergarten-age, and they’re not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Plus, there’s the tight labor market, said Stephanie Berglund, chief executive of thread, an Alaska child care advocacy organization.

Berglund said the average wage across child care centers is about $12 an hour, often with few benefits. There are plenty of other similarly-paid or higher-paid jobs open right now, including in restaurants and retail, she said.

“Every sector seems to be struggling in the same ways and so it just feels like there’s more competition for the same possible workforce,” she said.

Eubanks pressed that she’s hoping the state releases more of the federal coronavirus relief funds to providers of early childhood education to help raise salaries and attract employees.

Berglund said most child care providers don’t have big profit margins, so it’s hard for them to raise salaries or offer the same hiring incentives that some other businesses can.

On top of all of that, Eubanks said, a cyberattack that forced the state health department offline earlier this year has disrupted the state’s background check system, holding up hiring since May.

“Nothing is running smoothly,” she said. “I’ve lost a few people that I tried to hire because the process was taking too long.”

‘We’ve been totally ghosted’

But at Bright Beginnings Early Learning Center, owner Susan DeLoach is hopeful that the worst is over.

“I’ve been in this industry for 40 years,” she said. “And I’ve never seen difficult hiring such as we saw in May and June. And we were not able to enroll new families at that time, because we didn’t have the staff to care for additional children.”

Staffing got so bad earlier this summer that Bright Beginnings had to briefly discontinue care for a handful of children.

But now, DeLoach said, they’ve been able to hire enough workers to bring those families back, plus enroll new ones.

That’s thanks to an aggressive hiring campaign, including referral and hiring bonuses, she said. She also thinks it’s likely due, in part, to the end of extra federal benefits for unemployed workers in June.

“It’s beautiful to see our classrooms fully staffed again,” DeLoach said. “Everyone’s getting their lunch break and working their eight-hour day now. And that’s been really nice. We worked hard to achieve that.”

In downtown Anchorage, Tundra Tykes is also “starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said director Angie Lantz.

“I’ve had way more candidates apply recently than I have in months,” she said.

Meanwhile, the demand for child care continues to climb.

Tundra Tykes is a federally-sponsored child care program, and gives preference to children of federal workers. It has about a two-year waitlist for children of federal employees, and a four-year waitlist for kids of non-federal workers, Lantz said.

“I take inquiries, I would say, 20 to 30 a week from families looking for child care,” she said.

Back at Cook Inlet Native Head Start’s new campus in Anchorage’s Valley of the Moon neighborhood, Petticrew said he’s getting ghosted by applicants.

“We’ll find somebody. And they say, ‘Yeah, I’m interested.’ And we start moving down the line with that process. And then the next thing is we never hear back from them again,” he said. “This has happened several times to us. We’ve been totally ghosted.”

It’s frustrating, he said.

But still, he and his colleagues are determined to make another six to eight teacher hires in the next month and a half.

“We’re all contacting other educators we know,” he said. “We’re trying everything we can do, formally and informally, to try to get people to apply.”

If the hires aren’t made, the Head Start building will have to open in August with space for fewer children.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.