In northwest Minnesota, lack of child care spots a barrier to already strained workforce
According to a 2021 study by First Children’s Finance, in northwest Minnesota there is an overall need for new 3,211 child care spots.
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — In Thief River Falls, the number of open child care spots is at odds with the number of children under the age of five.
With around 715 children under the age of five, and only 498 child care spots, the city needs an estimated 217 new spots to bridge the gap. Michelle Landsverk, executive director of Advance Thief River, says the disconnect between the number of children and availability of child care has a huge economic impact.
“Increasingly, economic developers are understanding the importance of child care and the role it plays in allowing people to engage in the workforce,” Landsverk said.
Child care needs across northwestern Minnesota are similar. Paul Gorte, East Grand Forks economic development director, says East Grand Forks needs 210 new child care spots . According to a 2021 report from First Children’s Finance, a nonprofit organization that helps child care providers develop sustainable business practices, Crookston needs 191 spots, Warroad needs 126 and Mahnomen needs 150.
There is an overall need for First Children’s Finance’s northwest region, which includes Beltrami, Clearwater, Hubbard, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties.
According to Gorte, the disconnect between child care spots and children in need of care limits employers’ abilities to hire new employees, in turn limiting productivity and profit.
“Jobs can’t be filled, and employers who need to be able to hire employees can’t hire those employees,” he said. “That means they either have to decide to do less work, so they choose their projects, or find some way to accommodate.”
He says for businesses like restaurants in East Grand Forks, accommodating looks like shutting down sections of the restaurant and serving less people at a time.
Lack of child care, and lack of affordable child care, is a barrier to growing potential workforce as well.
“We know that there are people who would like to learn English and participate in the workforce, but they can’t because they don’t have someplace where their children can be taken care of when they need to take English as a second language class,” Gorte said.
Landsverk says the difference in opinion among economic developers in the importance of child care now, versus 10 years ago, stems from a greater understanding of how interconnected child care and workforce issues are, but also a tighter workforce.
“Just in the last couple of years it's been a real pain point for employers — they just can’t fill those open jobs, so I think everything is being considered right now. How can we get more people to fill these positions?” said Landsverk.
The city of East Grand Forks is looking for the answer to Landsverk’s question by participating in the Rural Child Care Innovation Program , an initiative of First Children’s Finance, funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Michigan Department of Education. The competitive program uses a community engagement approach to explore solutions to child care challenges in rural communities.
RCCIP provides a structured community engagement process for cities selected. Jessica Beyer, business development manager at First Children’s Finance, says it is an 18 to 24 month process, where a core group, made up of a cross section of the community, works to identify potential solutions. Specific data for the community is collected through surveys and community conversations, allowing for the program to result in child care solutions specifically tailored to that community.
“We know there’s an issue, we know there’s a challenge, but we want to research and capture data on a local level to really be able to think about how we can create solutions,” said Beyer.
First Children’s Finance has been operating RCCIP since 2014, and in that time, solutions for communities selected have ranged from eliminating county fees when renewing child care provider licenses and providing free CPR and first aid training to child care providers, to providing licensing classes at a local high school.
“We want to do two things: we really want to find ways we can support the current workforce and we want to find ways that we can grow new workforce,” said Beyer.
Numbers like 217 spots in Thief River Falls and 210 spots in East Grand Forks give economic developers a place to start when addressing child care needs, but Landsverk explained that those numbers do not account for people who travel for work. She estimates that 9,000 people from surrounding cities and counties work in Thief River Falls each day, many of whom have kids in need of care during the work day.
“If you take the surrounding counties that are contiguous to Pennington County, look at what the need is there and include those in the gap analysis, the gap is almost 1,966,” she said. “So I think the gap is really larger than 216, and I think that’s what we’re feeling.”