Eagle’s Nest Early Learning Center & Preschool in Waynesville has a coveted five-star rating and a waiting list. Yet, there are empty slots.

Ironically, it isn’t lack of space that’s preventing the center from reaching its capacity, but a staffing shortage.

Like many child care centers across the state, the traditionally low pay and fast pace traditional ly associated with the industry, has taken its toll.

Director Haley Dickerson said the center had been hiring staff for weeks.

“A lot of people have said they are interested in interviewing, for but one reason or another, they are not a good fit or they don’t show up for the interview,” she said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve had to shorten our hours.”

Still, staff members are having to work longer shifts and then clean just to maintain the required teacher/student ratio at all times. COVID protocols also add to the extra work. Parents, for instance, can’t walk their child into the center. That means extra staff time is needed at the front door during pick up and drop off times to do the virus screen and then take the child to the classroom.

A state survey shows that staffing issues at child care centers are an issue statewide. The issue is a challenging one because raising wages means upping the prices for families that can barely afford the $600 to $900 a month fees as it is.

“This is an important job,” Dickerson said. “I never thought this profession has been revered as it should be. It is as important in the community as a school teacher.”

Indeed, many in the child care industry earn less than those working in retail or fast food positions, jobs that require far less training than is needed to work in a child care facility.

The state survey showed there are plenty of facilities that could accept more children if only there were enough workers to keep the staff/child ratio in line with licensure requirement.

Eagle’s Nest Early Learning Center & Preschool has five classrooms with children ranging from 6 weeks to age 5. There are lead teachers and assistants in all the classrooms and is licensed to care for 71 students. Staff shortages have kept the census at 62.

Three new teachers have been hired, Dickerson said, and once they are trained, the center will look at expanding its hours and number of students. The new hires bring the total staff number up to 15.

Salaries

The salary level was a barrier for hiring help, Dickerson said, and the center wasn’t able to offer higher wages without raising tuition rates, which is something they did effective Nov. 1. Tuition rates vary depending on the age of the child, with infant rates at $840 a month, going down to $600 a month for the older children.

“We hadn’t had an increase since we opened in 2016,” Dickerson said. “We have wonderful staff members, and because of the additional stress and longer hours, we feared they may burn out. They have a heartfelt, deep love for this profession, but seeing them go through that struggle was a hard reality.”

That concern led to the rate increase, and ability to increase salaries overall about $1.50 an hour. Center staff are compensated based on their education, experience in the field and longevity at the facility.

“Maintaining integrity of the center as a smaller, homey type of center was important to us,” Dickerson said. “We want our rates to be competitive and affordable, but add in the struggles of the pandemic and being short staffed, we’re trying to compensate staff who stuck with it.”

Under the new salary structure, the lowest pay offered is $10 an hour, and a teacher has the potential to earn up to $18 an hour based on being a lead teacher with a master’s degree and many years of experience in the field, Dickerson said.

Even with the higher rate, applicants have plenty of other job choices that pay more. One of Dickerson’s tactics to keeping employees or recruiting help is to contrast the regular Monday through Friday schedule and the rewards associated with child care to what employees face in other jobs.

“I tell them they may have to have flexible schedules, work weekends or evenings, and may have something they could tolerate but heart’s not in it,” she said.

Even with the salary increases made possible by the tuition hike, Dickerson said those in the profession are lower paid than they should be, especially considering the nonstop work environment and the importance of caring for children during the most formative years of their lives.

Eagle’s Nest Early Learning Center & Preschool has a waiting list of about 30 children who need care, and Dickerson said the center receives calls daily from individuals seeking care for their children.

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