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April 18, 2018

Employers can take simple steps to support early learning (w/video)

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0

The state legislative panel, "Making Early Childhood Learning a Priority," featured Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way, and Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, at the Early Childhood Learning event April 17, 2018, at the Seattle Airport Marriott in SeaTac. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB)

Early childhood learning is critical for Washington’s current and future workforce, experts say, and there are easy things employers can do to help.

Simple solutions like giving employees time to volunteer at their child’s school, donating supplies and negotiating childcare discounts were among many ideas discussed at AWB’s Early Childhood Learning event Tuesday.

For example, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) negotiated a 5-10 percent discount and waived fees with one national childcare provider and negotiates discounts with others when many employees use the same service, said Michele Beehler, SEL’s senior human resource manager.

An audience member asks a question of the "Business Getting Involved" panel with Cynthia Juarez, executive director of early learning and migrant education for Educational Service District 105, and Michele Beehler, senior human resources manager for Schweitzer Engineering Labs, Inc.

Childcare benefits are paying off for the company.

“It’s almost a necessity for us as a recruiting tool,” Beehler said. Company officials say the benefit has helped reduce employee turnover.

But many companies simply can’t afford major investments, one event guest noted, which prompted the discussion at the end of a day filled with national experts, lawmakers and business leaders discussing solutions for childcare and early learning challenges in Washington.

Those solutions need to line up with what the community needs, noted Cynthia Juarez, executive director for Early Learning and Migrant Education at Educational Service District 105 in Yakima. There, a mix of public and private funding sources, including a grant from a private foundation, led to the creation of Blossoms Early Learning Center, which opened in 2016 and serves more than 70 preschoolers.

“It’s really investing in school readiness,” Juarez said in an interview. There’s a huge opportunity gap in central Washington, with many children not prepared for kindergarten, and high-quality early learning is one strategy to close that gap, she said.

More than 70 educators, employers and advocates attended Tuesday’s event at the Seattle Airport Marriott. The keynote speaker was Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She just returned from a weeklong visit to Saudi Arabia where she was helping officials write their early learning standards.

“This really is a global workforce issue,” she said. “And we have to maintain the competitive edge we have in building lifelong learners. And the research is really clear that it starts at birth.”

Allvin highlighted to the tremendous brain development that occurs from birth to 5 years-old, and the high return on investment from spending on early childhood learning. But that high return is coupled with quality programs, she noted, not an “anything goes” environment.

She described a profession of early childhood educators with inconsistent standards, education and licensing that varies across the country.

“We need a formal professional field of practice in early learning,” she said.

Ross Hunter, secretary of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, is focusing on data and working to overhaul Washington’s approach to early learning, which includes a merger with the Department of Early Learning.

He highlighted some sobering statistics: About 47 percent of children come to kindergarten ready to learn, and four out of five employers believe today’s labor pool lacks the skills and abilities essential to business success. Workforce participation is down, and as boomers retire, companies will have problems filling jobs, he said.

“We’ve got to fix this,” he said. “We’ve got to make it so people can work…There’s a business need for this.”

Hunter also described incredibly difficult challenges for many working parents. High-quality care is simply cost prohibitive for many parents, which means they can’t afford to work, and can’t afford not to work.

Guests also heard from state legislators who have advocated for greater investments in early childhood learning, including Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. Many people say they support early learning, he said, but not everyone fights to make it their top legislative funding priority.

Billig said he was glad, and not surprised that AWB hosted Tuesday’s event because the business community has more reason than most others to be an advocate for early learning.

“Because it’s not just about preparing the future workforce,” he said. “It’s also about taking care of those current employees, so they can be productive members of the workforce. Not to mention…supporting early learning programs that are going to make our communities healthier and safer and more productive.”

Billig was joined by Reps. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle; Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way; and, Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake. Dent said early learning is a way out of dependence, and poverty.

Kristin Economo of Seattle Colleges attended Tuesday’s event, and said it was great that the business community is coming together to talk about the future of education and early childhood learning.

“Workers in every industry are affected by this,” she said.

Manuel Villafan. Jr. of Catholic Charities Serving Central Washington also expressed support.

“It’s just nice to see the business community see the benefit of investing in early learning, because it does affect the workforce,” he said.

TVW captured video of each of the day's speakers and panels, which are now available to watch online:

  • 12:15 p.m. Keynote - Rhian E. Allvin, CEO, National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • 1:15 p.m. State of Early Childhood Learning in Washington state - Ross Hunter, secretary, Washington State Department Children, Youth and Families
  • 2:20 p.m. Legislative Panel
  • 3:20 p.m. Caitlin Codella, senior director of policy and programs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation for Education and Workforce; and Aaron Morris, director of family and community learning, PBS Children's Media and Education
  • 4:10 p.m. Business Innovations in Early Learning

Photos from the day are posted on AWB's Facebook page.

For more information about early learning and education issues, contact AWB’s Amy Anderson at 360.943.1600 or