Torti: The antidote to our shrinking workforce is affordable, quality child care

by Tom Torti, President of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce It was heartening to hear Governor Scott announce a new program to attract young people to live and work in Vermont during his January 23 budget address. Employers and business leaders across the state will tell you that strengthening Vermont’s economy depends upon reversing current demographic trends of an aging population and rapidly shrinking workforce. We must ensure that young families are able to afford living and working in our state. It is clear that the governor and his administration has made this issue a centerpiece of their agenda.

So how do we get young people to consider moving to Vermont and raising their families here? How do we keep the talented young Vermonters with the skills employers need from moving out of state and taking their potential elsewhere?

When workers with young families are considering opportunities, a key item on their “checklist” is the availability of high-quality, affordable child care. Vermont’s child care shortage is a serious deterrent for workers with young children looking to settle down and establish careers.

As the Chamber works to attract businesses not only to Chittenden County but across the state, more and more companies are asking about the quality of our school systems and the availability of high quality child care. The inquiry is no longer unique, it has become the norm.

Almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to regulated child care programs and nearly 80% don’t have access to high-quality programs. In addition, child care is unaffordable for many families. In 2016 for Vermont households with two young children and two working parents, child care was the single biggest budget item—more expensive than housing, food, transportation or health care.

Vermont parents are forced to drop out of the workforce because they can’t find or afford quality child care while, at the same time, businesses struggle to attract and retain skilled workers. Even when parents are able to juggle family and work, productivity and focus can suffer due to the stress of paying for child care or worrying about their children during work because they were unable to find an ideal child care situation.

Increasing access to high-quality, affordable child care not only addresses Vermont’s workforce challenge, it’s an investment with long-term benefits to the economy overall. In 2017 a Vermont Business Roundtable report found that expanding Vermont’s early care and learning system would reap net benefits of $3.08 for every $1 invested, which would accrue to $1.3 billion in net benefits to Vermont’s economy over the working lifetime of the children served.

Growing Vermont’s workforce and economy begins with investing in our youngest citizens. We cannot hope to be a destination state for the country’s best and brightest if we don’t ensure the families who already live here can afford to give their children the strongest start possible. Increasing access to affordable, quality child care must be a cornerstone of any economic development strategy.