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Lack of day care a western North Dakota workforce issue

Southwest North Dakota has a lot on its plate as the fall elections near. Oil production has helped drive down the state's unemployment rate, but the benefits do not come without their drawbacks.

North Dakota has a 2.9 percent unemployment rate as of June, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released July 20.

Many of those workers are parents, and many of those parents are having trouble finding a place to take care of their children while they are at work, officials said.

Lack of available care

"It's an issue; we know that we need to address it and get the government helping the people," said Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England.

North Dakota has always had a need for more child care, District 36 Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, said. Because of the recent influx of people in the western half of the state, it has reached a critical state.

Last month, the Board of University and School Lands granted $125,000 to five western cities to use in municipally-owned day care centers. More programs like this are needed to help create and expand centers, Meyer said.

"I did not think, personally, that that was going to be the No. 1 need in these communities," Meyer said after a survey showed oil-impacted cities wanted more day care above all other improvements.

Not only do child care programs need support to get started, they need support to stay open, said Linda Reinicke, director for western North Dakota's Child Care Resource and Referral office.

Cost of employees

Once a day care center is running, hiring and retaining staff is the next hurdle.

"We need a workforce," Reinicke said. "We need people who are willing to work in child care, stay in child care, willing to get trained providing child care."

In order to keep child care affordable, most centers can't compete with oil field jobs or even fast food, Meyer said.

Utilizing college students going into child-based professions by offering college credits in addition to meager wages give the students practical training and the center an employee for up to the duration of their studentship, she said.

Changing attitudes

"Child care is not babysitting," Reinicke said, comparing it to hosting a 10-plus hour birthday party for preschoolers five days a week.

"It's particularly stressful if you don't know what you're doing and you have a hard time relating to the children," she said.

In the past, child care has been seen as a social issue, but advocates are trying to change that, Meyer said.

"We've always ran into that brick wall, 'You can't use state dollars for babysitting,'" she said. "And then you try to explain, that's not what this is about, this is a workforce issue, it's not a babysitting issue, it's not even a social issue, it's a workforce issue."

Education is the solution to change attitudes, Meyer said, adding that attending lectures about the need for child care changed her point of view a few years ago.

"I think that it's an 'everybody's' issue," Schatz said. "As an educator I know that having children coming into the school systems being prepared is very important."

Alternative solutions

Training women to enter or come back to the workforce once their children are in school or old enough to stay home alone for a few hours after school could lessen the need for day care, Meyer said.

"If they had the option to stay home and watch their children until they even go to kindergarten and then you could have a retraining or -- I have to think of how we could do that," she said.

At her office at Lutheran Social Services, mothers are allowed to bring their infants to work for about the first six months, Reinicke said.

"They stay with the mom in her office in a port-a-crib and for six months," she said. "Every business can't do that."

Constituents are also responsible for facilitating social change, Meyer said.

"I would love to engage younger families and younger parents where to make them understand they're the people that can make a difference with this issue," she said.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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