Lack of workers, high tuition remain problem in child care industry

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Above: See the full interview on NH PBS’s The State We’re In

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There are two big problems in the child care industry — high tuition costs and a lack of workers.

But the way Jackie Cowell sees it, workforce is the bigger problem.

“Without that you don’t even have child care, even if you can afford it,” said Cowell, executive director of the nonprofit Early Learning NH. “First you have to make sure that it actually exists and that you have spots for people, and then work on the affordability.”

The twin problems are national in scope, but lack of labor is a particular issue in New Hampshire, which has an aging workforce and an unemployment rate of just 2.9 percent, the third-lowest in the nation. Child care operations, where wages are relatively low, find themselves in competition with other employers who may be able to pay higher wages.

These operations had to cut back on the number of children they could serve to maintain spacing earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that some of these restrictions have been eased, there simply are not enough workers in many places to run at capacity.

“Too many of these operations have to put parents on a waiting list, because they don’t have enough staff to open a classroom, and they can’t make ends meet as a business if they are not fully enrolled,” Cowell said.   

The pandemic exacerbated existing problems.  

Jake Leon, a spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Department, said that as of June 1, there were 45,976 licensed or allowable child care spaces in 830 programs across the state, compared to 891 programs offering 46,000 slots in September 2019, before the pandemic.

“Shortages vary by a number of factors – a child’s age and geographic area, timing and availability, guidelines during the pandemic on smaller group sizes,” he said. “Infant and toddler care has been inherently in short supply due to the lower child-to-teacher ratio along with the intensive skilled care required.” 

Demand remains high for child care even though more parents have been working from home.  

“It’s really hard to do that with a 3-year-old,” Cowell said. “Either you’re not paying attention to them or to your work. And there are lots of jobs out there where you don’t have a choice, like Market Basket, you have to be on the job.”

Availability of child care in the state has been declining, according to the 2018 New Hampshire Market Rate Survey, which was funded by the state. It found the number of licensed child care programs have been gradually declining over the last 15 years. In 2001, there were 1,207 licensed programs, while in 2018 the number dropped to 834, a decline the report said  “significantly reduces access for families.”

The survey found that for full-time programs in 2018, mean weekly rates ranged from $237 for a baby to $180 for a 5-year-old.  

Costs are significant for parents, even those earning a decent income.

“If you really look at it and do the math, you can be spending over half of your take-home pay on child care,” Cowell said. “If you have a baby and a preschooler, mom and dad can be working full time but child care tuition can be out of reach and it really shouldn’t be.”

A report submitted to the state by the public policy consulting firm EConsult Solutions and the National Center for Children in Poverty found that 2019 child care costs for a family with an infant and a 4-year-old in Rockingham County could reach nearly $25,000 annually.  

There continues to be upward pressure on pricing.

Chris Emond, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, said that the industry has no alternative to raising raites in order to cover rising labor and other costs.

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Shari Lancaster, director of Laconia Early Learning Center, working with some young children. Courtesy Photo

When labor shortages prevent a child care center from operating at capacity, this can cause financial pressure that forces it to charge more to those it does serve, said Shari Lancaster, director of Laconia Early Learning Center. 

She is trying to hire three employees, including a preschool teacher.

“It has been hard to find employees,” she said. “We’ve had a handful of applicants and most aren’t qualified.”

Without enough employees, Lancaster can’t serve as many children. Thirty children are on a waiting list at her center.

At the Laconia Early Learning Center, it costs $265 per week for infants, $250 for toddlers and $225 for preschoolers, Lancaster said.   

Scholarships are available through the state, with a sliding scale for assistance depending on income level. For those who don’t qualify, child care costs can take quite a bit out of the family budget even if both parents are working and earning a decent income.

“Child care is extremely expensive,” said Leigh Anne Scarmardo, who has three children on Lancaster’s waiting list. She and her husband have a 19-month-old boy and two girls, ages 5 and 3.

“If you want women to have careers, you have to address child care needs. I have an established career and there are times we wondered if I should just not work because we couldn’t figure out what to do with the children. 

“It’s kind of a crazy place to be considering letting the career go to focus on the family because there aren’t any options. To have a nanny at all hours would be exorbitantly expensive, $25 to $30 an hour,” she said.

Scarmardo and her husband, Brian Ng, are physician assistants.

They took their girls out of daycare at the start of the pandemic, about the same time as their baby boy was born. 

“Child care has always been hard, but I was surprised that it was going to be as hard as it has been to get the children back into day care,” Scarmardo said. 

Waiting lists could be reduced for people like Scarmardo if child care centers could boost capacity by hiring more workers. Relatively low salary levels, training requirements and the difficult nature of the work are all challenges given the state’s low unemployment rate.

Cowell said the average child care teacher in New Hampshire makes $11 an hour. The “American Families Plan” proposed by President Biden would bring that up to $15 an hour. 

She said she hopes this proposal will be included in the $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan backed by the White House. The plan, some details of which are still being worked out, is pending in Congress, as is a much smaller bipartisan infrastructure package.  

“That’s an extra $160 a week and could make a big difference,” Cowell said. “It still remains a lower-wage job, but perhaps a liveable one.”

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About this Author

Rick Green

Rick Green is a former Associated Press news editor, local editor for The Oklahoman and reporter/editor for The Laconia Daily Sun.