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Education

Utah sets up a scholarship program to lure in more child care workers

Happy baby playing with toy blocks.
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Child care has been called the most broken business in America. In Utah, the cost for families to enroll their kids full-time in a program runs from about $400 a month to more than $1,500.

Jody Zabriskie has no trouble adding up the costs of running her child care business, A to Z Building Blocks.

She pays the staff at each of her seven locations across Utah and south Salt Lake counties, along with building leases and utilities. Then there are the curriculum materials to support early learning, plus toys, games and food. What really drives up the costs are regulations.

Child care operators need insurance, certifications for things like CPR and first aid and to meet required staffing ratios. She needs one staff member for every four infants.

“The child care industry is kind of its own beast,” she said. “It's always difficult for families to afford and it's difficult for providers because of all the overhead.”

Child care has been called the most broken business in America. In Utah, the cost for families to enroll their kids full-time in a program runs from about $400 a month to more than $1,500. And until recently, staff often started out making as little as $9 per hour. A tight labor market has only exacerbated the challenges child care centers face in hiring.

Zabriskie is hopeful a new scholarship program can help tackle at least part of the challenge. Using $4 million in federal COVID relief funds, the Utah Department of Workforce Services is offering students getting degrees in early childhood education and development up to $3,500 per semester if they work part-time at a child care program.

“This was an opportunity for child care providers to be able to market the service to help attract qualified applicants for their openings,” said Office of Child Care Director Rebecca Banner. “But also provide an opportunity for students to get some work experience as they are pursuing their education.”

It’s one of several strategies Banner’s office is using to address the unique challenges of the child care business. Federal pandemic relief has also helped them increase the income eligibility for families to receive a subsidy, along with offering “stabilization grants” for providers to maintain services.

For operators like Zabriskie, it’s too early to say how impactful the scholarship will be. It is an important step toward making child care a more viable career for people, she said. And it’s been a selling point for current staff who may be encouraged to go back to school for additional training.

She does worry about what will happen when all the federal funding runs out in 2024. The additional support she received helped her increase starting wages to $15 per hour and maintain tuition costs despite inflation.

“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking to see where we go after that,” she said. “The money has to come from somewhere. And ultimately, if it doesn't come from some other source of funding it's got to come from the parents.”

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