Three Evidence-Based Ways to Support the Early Care and Education Workforce

By JoAnn Hsueh

This commentary was originally published by Early Learning Nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated inequities and fragilities inherent in existing child care markets and decimated the supply of child care in many communities. As part of the $3.5 trillion budget plan, Congress is currently considering ways to address the long-standing underinvestment in the early care and education (ECE) workforce in order to help stabilize child care markets nationally. Despite being deemed essential to the nation’s economy, the ECE workforce experiences high turnover, low pay and benefits, and limited opportunities for professional development and advancement—all of which undermines the quality and continuity of care for young children.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of long-term reforms for the child care workforce has not been well-studied. However, there are decades of studies testing “make work pay” initiatives—where workers are provided extra monetary payments, sometimes in the form of bonuses, earnings supplements and earned income tax credits—that provide highly relevant insights. These strategies are remarkably reliable at boosting workers’ earnings and incomes, reducing poverty, and, in some cases, increasing employment retention. Here are three lessons from this research that can help increase opportunities for advancement and upward mobility for the child care workforce.

Longer-term, robust compensation reforms work better than short-term initiatives

Emerging experimental evidence in Virginia already points to the promise of compensation reform efforts; with even relatively modest retention bonuses of $1,500 paid out in three installments, teacher turnover in centers dropped dramatically from 30% to 15% over an 8-month period.

But do time-limited bonuses result in long-term economic mobility? Not always, according to evidence from other sectors. Short-term positive effects on income often fade when monetary supplements end. However, when financial support is sustained for longer periods of time and coupled with other services, like coaching and case management, they can produce larger and longer-lasting effects.

The New Hope Project, for example, combined earnings supplements to raise participants’ incomes above federal poverty thresholds for three consecutive years with a combination of other services. This kind of sustained support yielded sustained long-term gains for some workers, allowing them to boost their employment and earnings prospects. While the costs of more comprehensive compensation reforms are higher, the longer-term earnings and income gains experienced by participants often exceed these initial net costs, suggesting they can be a worthwhile investment.

Coordinate and align compensation reforms with intensive workforce development initiatives

Make work pay initiatives have been shown to be more effective in the long-term when coupled with education and employment supports. However, ECE workers often must work full-time to make ends meet or to take advantage of compensation and workforce development reforms, which can prevent them from successfully completing degree and credentialing programs.

For example, a generous initiative in Louisiana offered ECE workers scholarships that covered the full cost of tuition for coursework, a financial incentive of $3,300 tax credit per year once teachers completed their credential, and other supports. But many teachers who began the program were not able to earn their credentials.

ECE workforce compensation and development reforms can rectify these incompatibilities by aligning their requirements. For example, ECE reforms could condition monetary supplements not solely on full-time work, but on a combination of part-time work and progress in postsecondary preparation or professional development training programs, allowing workers to balance the rigor of educational demands with stable work and their economic well being. Enabling ECE workers to successfully engage in education and training opportunities not only enhances their employment and earning prospects, but also builds core competencies and quality practices to support young children.

Aggressively market and simplify application processes to ensure maximum enrollment

Well-designed initiatives are only effective if the targeted workers know about them and can take them up. However, engaging eligible participants can be challenging.

  • Simple marketing materials that are personalized with individuals’ names and include specific information, like explanations of the supports being offered, can greatly enhance take-up.
  • Similarly, delineating specific actions, such as clicking on direct weblinks to learn about eligibility requirements and to complete application materials, can be highly effective.
  • Marketing strategies also should meet ECE workers where they are. For example, one could provide child care centers with incentives to promote compensation reforms and workforce development opportunities when they are onboarding staff.

Policymakers have a unique opportunity to rebuild our depleted early care and education workforce. Evidence-building efforts are currently underway to better understand the factors that drive ECE worker turnover and to identify promising strategies that can support the retention and advancement of the ECE workforce. In the meantime, we can learn from other employment sectors to support the well being, economic mobility and skill development of the people we rely upon to care for the nation’s youngest children.

JoAnn Hsueh is the director of MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development policy area.