Child care services spotlighted as key to reversing Nebraska workforce shortage

It’s as urgent a priority for businesses now as it is for families, visiting expert says

By: - May 18, 2023 6:23 pm

Kids Can, an early childhood education and day care, recently expanded into a new Omaha headquarters. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska communities are at a critical “inflection point” where they must figure out how to solve younger generations’ demands for quality child care — or face continued worker shortages.

That’s a message that Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a child health and development expert at Harvard Medical School, delivered during a three-day visit this week to communities from Kearney to Omaha.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, founding director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (Courtesy of First Five Nebraska)

“Child care is as urgent a priority and need for businesses now as it is for families,” Shonkoff said. “Families are demanding more from the workplace, and child care is at the epicenter of that.”

A pediatrician and chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, whose mission is to bring science to bear on public policy affecting children and families, Shonkoff met this week with representatives of the state’s child care industry, business and government.

His visit was organized primarily by First Five Nebraska, a nonpartisan early childhood research and advocacy organization, during a time when Nebraska and its lawmakers are grappling with an ongoing labor scarcity.

He also was to speak with some state senators and their staffs, and said his thoughts reflect research as well as interactions with employers and civic leaders locally and across the nation.

Economic developers tune in

In Lincoln on Thursday, Shonkoff addressed more than 200 members of the Nebraska Economic Developers Association about ties between child care and business growth.

Also addressing the conference was Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The chamber has been shining a light on workforce woes, saying that up to 80,000 jobs are unfilled across the state and that key challenges to recruitment and retention are inadequate housing and affordable, quality child care, particularly in rural areas.

Families are demanding more from the workplace, and child care is at the epicenter of that.

– Dr. Jack Shonkoff, child health and development expert at Harvard Medical School

Though Shonkoff stopped short of citing programs or places with model child care services, he said communities can start with bringing all sectors, including employers and government, under the “tent” to accept shared responsibility for “solving the problem.” 

He told the Nebraska Examiner in an interview that today’s parents who have the wherewithal to choose where to live and work view child care as more than “baby-sitting.”

They’ve paid attention, Shonkoff said, to the latest science on how the first years of brain development are influenced by interactions and surroundings, and about how early childhood care affects readiness for school and beyond.

Dimensions Education Programs in Lincoln, Neb., provides a hands-on, experiential approach to learning that is based on the needs and curiosity of young children. (Courtesy of We Care for Kids)

“They won’t settle for what people in the past would have said was good enough,” Shonkoff said. “Support for young families with young children is part of the answer to the workforce shortage.” 

Alexis Zgud of First Five Nebraska said those in the industry hoped, with Shonkoff’s visit, to underscore the connection between quality and affordable child care and the state’s economic future.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck problem,” she said.

About 72% of Nebraska children under age 6 have all available parents in the workforce, a share that puts Nebraska among the top 10 states, according to the latest census data.

At the same time, Zgud said, child care programs that mostly are home-care providers have declined in the state by about 10% since 2019, and 11 of the state’s 93 counties have no licensed child care facilities.

Quality vs. quantity

Opening more child care programs is not enough, Shonkoff said, adding that quality providers and workers today come at greater cost and higher wages. 

An attempt earlier this week in the Legislature by State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln to raise provider reimbursement rates related to child care subsidies was rejected, but Conrad said she has faith that child care improvements are ahead.

Getty Images

“This is such an important area where we can find so much common ground across geographies, across the political spectrum,” she said. “Not only does it help our youngest Nebraskans get a good start, it’s a huge piece of solving our workforce challenges.”

Among measures before the Legislature is Legislative Bill 754, on final reading, that includes tax credits for limited numbers of low-income parents, child care providers, child care workers seeking professional development and entities that donate to child care programs.

Also on final reading is LB 227, which includes a three-year extension of the elevated eligibility for child care subsidy for families who make up to 185% of the federal poverty level. 

Seeking more public-private partnerships

Mike Feeken, who just finished his term as president of the Nebraska Economic Developers Association, said his hope is that conference participants return to their communities to urge public-private partnerships that invest in early childhood development, education and day care.

He sees the early years as integral to forming “executive function skills” that later help determine a child’s career path. Skills such as the ability to resolve conflict, and look a person in the eye, evolve early on with meaningful interactions with caregivers. said Feeken, strategic partnerships advisor at First Five and former economic development director in St. Paul, Nebraska. 

Some communities already have launched ventures that First Five Nebraska sees as pacesetters. Among the efforts:

  • In Columbus, as two child care facilities announced they were closing last summer, a loss of about 150 child care spots, the Columbus area Chamber of Commerce stepped in and shepherded through an idea to start a new nonprofit child care center. Contributing to the effort financially was a low-interest loan from the city, a grant from the county and funds from three local employers. “So it was really a public-private effort,” said Dawson Brunswick of the chamber.
  • In the Omaha metropolitan area, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce has started to convene businesses to generate ideas on making child care more accessible and affordable.
  • In the Norfolk area, a coalition has been meeting to come up with new and better ways to provide child care. At least one participant, Christ Lutheran Church’s child care center, saw its open positions fill after the congregation approved an hourly pay base increase from $10.40 to $13 (not including wage boosts for education and experience), said director Chad Bryant. Staff works also to connect employees with available outside aid, including the pandemic-related child care worker stipends distributed by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Said Bryant: “To ensure quality, we needed to make a change.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.