Child care services struggle to fill positions as worker shortage continues

JOPLIN, Mo. – “Now enrolling.” That’s what can be seen in big letters on the side of The Learning Tree Pre-school and Childcare in Joplin. It’s also something that owner Terra Smith wishes she could do right now — but she can’t. And it’s not because they’re at max capacity.

“I’ve turned people away because we just don’t have the staff to accommodate more kids right now,” explains Smith.

Smith explains that she’s tried for months to replace three positions that were vacated during the pandemic. Even after posting job openings everywhere that she can think of, she’s still not had any luck.

“This has never happened before. Normally I have so many applications that it’s hard to choose who to hire. Now I can’t get anybody in the door,” says Smith.

To stay within state regulations, she’s had to greatly reduce the number of kids they care for — which also cuts into revenue when they already run on slim margins.

“We can have 72 kids here. Right now we have 24,” says Smith. “We’ve been making it, but you know we’re struggling. We need kids.”

Just a few minutes away at Wee Tots Day Care Center, the situation isn’t quite as bad.

“I finally got someone hired, so she’ll be starting here shortly,” explains Marye Lallemand, owner of Wee Tots Day Care Center.

But the process to find even one person was much more difficult than she would have liked.

“We’d have several applicants, they called and set up an appointment… in one week we had four no shows,” says Lallemand.

She says that the main way they’ve made it is because of the dedication of the staff they do have. They’ve been pulling overtime and more weight any time someone has to be out sick or can’t make it.

“I owe a lot to them. And I appreciate them every day,” says Lallemand.

“It is a struggle and it’s hard, but we keep going cause this is what we want to do and this is what we love to do,” says Smith.

In Kansas, the non-profit Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas is working hard to help parents caught in the middle.

The agency is the parent resource center for the entire state, meaning they work to help parents find childcare options that will work for them, when they’re having a hard time on their own.

“We have a customized database of licensed childcare programs across the state. We put in all that information the parents provides to us, and generate a customized referral list so that they can make an informed decision,” says Reva Wywandis, Executive Director of Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas.

You can learn more about Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas at https://east.ks.childcareaware.org/