Early childhood conference addresses industry issues
KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - The sixth-annual Thriving Children, Families and Communities Conference was hosted at the Younes Conference Center North on Tuesday. The event was geared towards taking child development to the next level.
More than 500 civic, business, education and healthcare leaders from 118 Nebraska communities attended the event. There were also 15 different states represented at the conference, and the focus was the crucial connection between quality early childhood education and community vitality.
Walter Gilliam, Buffett Early Childhood Institute Executive Director, said during the conference they want to raise awareness for the problems that exist and find solutions. Childcare is a necessity no matter where you live in Nebraska.
Gilliam compared childcare to roadways because without either one, most people wouldn’t be able to get to work, but it’s something the general public takes for granted and devalues.
“Childcare providers have been a historically exploited labor force,” said Gilliam. “We tend to devalue work that had been traditionally associated with women, such as taking care of children. We often neglect the issues of children in general and in many communities it’s work that’s provided by women of color; and people of color have been exploited for many many years.”
Gilliam said the childcare industry is ripe for exploitation, just as it has been for decades. At the same time it’s vital to everyday living. The biggest problem is properly compensating childcare workers.
“I’ll tell you this about childcare; you can’t outsource it and you can’t get it delivered to your doorstep by Amazon,” said Gilliam. “It’s high touch and it requires a lot of attention; and as a result these folks need to be compensated. Now what’s happened, especially during the course of the pandemic is people have realized they can make more money working at a McDonald’s.”
Gilliam said occupations such as dog groomers and parking lot attendants are paid better than childcare providers. He said it’s about the message it sends about how we value our children, adding, increasing wages will be a team effort.
“Well I think the only way around it is we have to make sure that there’s a way to be able to afford this through government, through businesses, through the private sector,” said Gilliam. “It’s going to take all of us together in order to be able to find a way to afford childcare.”
Gilliam said without affordable childcare local economies will struggle. According to the Buffett Early Childhood Institute study, over 30% of families with a young child had to withdraw from the workforce because they couldn’t afford childcare. One attendee said as a society, we invest money and time into things that are important to us.
“So as a community we have to understand how important early childhood is, and when you understand that 90% of a babies brain is going to be developed before they’re five; that tells you how important those first five years are,” said Wendy Gwennap, United Way of South Central Nebraska. “So we have to put time, energy, resources, money, whatever we have to making our early childhood community thrive.”
Gweenap said other than low wages, people are leaving the childcare industry due to lack of respect. She said it’s the duty of local communities to be positive and uplifting about childcare providers instead of being dismissive.
“It’s not just daycare. It’s actually brain development, and those are the most important and essential people that we have in our community,” said Gweenap. “Are those people that are willing to put time and energy and effort and love into kids. That is the most valuable resource that we have.”
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