Apprenticeship: a key to solving our child care crisis

There are no quick fixes, one-time cash infusions won't work

WITHIN EVERY CHALLENGE lies vast opportunity, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than our child care system, which is struggling with a capacity shortage.  Solving the capacity problem will not only make child care availability more abundant, it will create new career mobility opportunities for some of the lowest-paid workers in our Commonwealth.

Teacher assistants are the entry level of the child care workforce and these are lower-paying but not low-skilled jobs.  Compliance with state regulations and pandemic health and safety guidance requires staff to apply skills, motivation, and commitment while also caring for children and helping them to learn.

The child care workforce has been decimated by a number of factors, including: the loss of many professionals due to COVID-19; the need for some employees to be home with their own children during the pandemic; increasing competition from large national retail companies that can pay a higher wage for far less demanding work; and the “silver tsunami” and “great resignation” that are sending a record number of workers to retirement and to discover new careers.

The path to becoming a credentialed Child Development Associate, which enables one to become a preschool teacher and, with additional training, a lead teacher, is difficult and costly.  There are, however, steps that can be taken to support workers on their journey and retain them by making higher-skilled and better-paying jobs more attainable.  By holding on to these employees, some 30 to 40 percent of whom are people of color, we are creating a workforce that is culturally and linguistically aligned with many of the families being served by our child care system.

When assistants have to go from the job site to a classroom, it creates a significant barrier, particularly since many are parents themselves.  An on-the-job – we call it “learn while you earn” – training program coupled with virtual classroom education form the core of an apprenticeship program that is a vital way to encourage retention and promotion in the child care workforce.  Onsite mentoring provides the professional support for the apprentice’s adaptation of classroom learning to practice.

Apprenticeship is not an untested concept.  Through state grants, Family Services of Central Mass., an affiliate of Seven Hills Foundation, has developed an apprenticeship program. In partnership with child care providers, it is currently working with two cohorts comprising 28 child care employees.  Already, child care center directors informally report improved performance, and the monthly reports collected from on-site mentors document the growth in apprentices’ competencies.  Within a year, we will see these entry-level employees become teachers and, for some, lead teachers.  The practical effect of people growing and staying in the profession is greater capacity and improved quality of services.

The time is right, as people begin the return to the workplace and as the state continues to experience surplus revenue in part due to federal relief, to formalize a long-term, sustainable statewide apprenticeship program and invest in it over several years.   There will be no quick fixes or one-time cash infusions that will stabilize child care across Massachusetts.  It is going to require ongoing investment and a commitment to fixing a system that became overstressed during the course of the last several decades and has not been able to remain competitive in wages compared to large corporations that now offer higher paying jobs with far less stress.

The state has been an innovator in establishing new pilots.  A state grant, in fact, enabled our agency to create an apprenticeship program.  Its cost is far less than the traditional path assistants take to become teachers.  The solutions we create – starting with apprenticeship – must be recurring so that we continually move employees up the career ladder, thereby fostering retention and addressing the persistent capacity gap.  This will be a massive workforce mobilization.  As apprentices get trained and certified, they will become teachers and lead teachers and their former assistant positions will then be backfilled by less-experienced workers who can then become apprentices and begin their own career journey.

In our apprenticeship model, we not only train people to become teachers, we partner with a community college so that they can get college credits.  Apprentices receive up to 150 hours of technical classroom instruction, over 2,000 on-the-job training hours (equivalent to one year of employment) and – through our dedicated community college partner – six credits toward completion of their degree.  We regularly see apprentices gaining the confidence to continue their educational journey

In fact, the personal and professional development that we witness is transformational.  We see apprentices leveling up, acquiring new skills, and becoming more capable at teaching their young students and creating a calm, nurturing environment in a setting that could otherwise be chaotic and less educational.

Meet the Author

David A Jordan

President, Seven Hills Foundation
The Commonwealth must ensure the professional development of our early education workforce – thereby boosting capacity – by replicating and permanently funding the apprenticeship model.

David A. Jordan is president of Seven Hills Foundation & Affiliates in Worcester.