Capital District YMCA struggling to find childcare workers in suburbia

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
First-graders are escorted from their bus to Altamont Elementary School on the first day of school Tuesday morning.

The childcare crisis is hitting home as the Capital District YMCA struggles to find workers in big suburbs like Guilderland and Clifton Park amid a national labor shortage that has hurt the childcare industry. 

As one of the largest childcare providers in the Capital Region — typically in before- and after-school programs — the CDYMCA held a series of job fairs last month, trying to pull in more than 150 new recruits to cover a gap in its workforce, which a YMCA press release termed “one of the worst childcare labor shortages in the past 30 years.” 

Director of Marketing Emily Lang Anastasio told The Enterprise this week that the organization is a little more than halfway toward its goal, and has managed to bulk up enough to cover its needs in urban areas like Albany and Schenectady, but is having a hard time in the big suburbs, which are less accessible to some of the students who make up around half the CDYMCA’s childcare workers.

Because of the shortage, not all CDYMCA child-care sites are opening on Sept. 12 with the rest, Anastasio said, and the organization has a list on its website of the ones that are open so that parents can check on the status of their local site. Guilderland’s sites at the Altamont, Pine Bush, and Westmere elementary schools are among the ones that will open on Sept. 12.

“Our parents are being informed by email every day of what’s going on,” Anastasio said. “We’re working really hard.”

She also said, “We did heavy job fairs. We went to Crossgates Mall, we went to all the area colleges, we’ve been doing heavy advertising on Spotify and we’ve been running commercials. We’re trying to reach every market that we can.”

The difficulty the YMCA faces, in addition to the lower availability of young, transient workers outside the urban centers, is a wider labor market that’s increasingly competitive, as has been felt in all manner of industries that have confronted similar recruitment challenges. 

“Generally speaking, our [wages] start at about $13 an hour and go up to $19,” Anastasio said. “ … I saw a sign the other day that Wendy’s is now paying $20 an hour. That’s more than what we’re paying. We offer much better benefits and a more conducive work environment but, at the end of the day, we can’t necessarily compete with those places paying $20 an hour.”

She said that the agency’s director of childcare, Lynn Sibert, has “been in the industry for 35 years and said she’s never seen anything like this before … It’s just absolutely unheard of.”

Aside from the competitive labor market, Anastasio said, high schoolers are working less in general, choosing sports and other after-school activities instead of getting jobs, a trend that predates the pandemic, which otherwise accounts for many of the various labor shortages. 

The all-time peak of teen employment, according to Brookings, was in 1978 when 57.9 percent of people between 16 and 19 years old were employed; that figure dropped to the mid-30s by 2018. The think-tank suggests that the cause may be increased competition from older and/or migrant workers, along with more time spent in school. 

In addition to school-aged workers, the CDYMCA gets “a decent amount of stay-at-home moms who are maybe looking to get into the workforce part-time,” Anastasio said. “We get retired teachers … But generally speaking, about half our workers are either high-school or college students.”

Anastasio said that the CDYMCA is planning to care for 1,400 children across its 36 sites this year, with an additional 500 families on a waiting list. That number, she said, was a cautious estimate made so as not to overbook, “not realizing we’d be in quite the childcare crisis that we’re in.”

“So the need is really great,” she said, “but we didn’t want to stretch ourselves too thin. Ironically, we still ended up in that situation. It’s highly unusual. We just have never seen anything like this.”

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