To Fill the New Child Care Gaps, Employers Will Have To Think in New Ways

Mom trying to work and help her daughter with homework at home

Earlier this summer, Massachusetts parents got the good-ish news that the state would allow kids’ programs, like learning pods, outside of schools. 

It was “good” because it was an alternative for people who desperately needed it. But it was “ish,” because it left another problem unsolved. Newspapers were already filled with stories of people scrambling to create their own learning circles as a stand in for the school year that wasn’t. How were parents supposed to find these programs? 

Turns out, employers were having a similar problem. A recent survey shows that despite the desire and intent to look after their working parents, few organizations feel like they’re hitting the mark. “While most believe supporting these employees is a top priority today,” wrote authors of a new study by Wills Towers Watson, “less than four in 10 agree that their current programs and policies to support them are effective.”

That employers are worried shouldn’t be a shock. Parents account for as much as a third of the workforce, and many of them are famously leaving jobs, dialing back hours, or burning out as a result of family conflicts brought on by the pandemic. The Wills Tower study says a quarter of surveyed employers have experienced such exits in their own organizations. 

But answers have been hard to come by. The pandemic didn’t just evolve working-parent challenges – it torpedoed them, upending benefits strategies that had been carefully thought out for years. Where child care was once primarily what happens between the ages of infant and first grade, it was now all encompassing, with every child – even those whose age in a previous era would have been well outside of traditional child care lines – falling under the umbrella of kids who needed support. And now it wasn’t just traditional care: it was teaching and enrichment and virtual tutoring and even whole-sale replacements for school – each meaning something different for a different age. And all requiring HR departments to quickly catch up. 

The survey shows employers are looking. But filling this new void will require employers to think in new ways. Specifically, they’ll have to expand their definition of child care support beyond traditional lines and individual offerings, and start thinking in terms of programs that parents can easily select, depending on what they need.

Primary care: The pandemic is expected to deplete child care availability by as much as half. Parents will need full-time support via centers, self-serve databases, and placement services.

Gaps in care: There’s a clear realization now that child care needs surpass the early years. It means back-up care needs to easily accommodate older children as well as younger ones in places where siblings can stay together.  

School support: School (or lack thereof) is a huge obstacle right now. Offering age-by-age academic help across grades – tutoring, learning pods, and on-site virtual learning assistance – answers a new and growing need.   

In many cases, meeting the challenge will require not just finding the answers, but actually creating them. And that’s already happening. Microsoft, Bank of America and Accenture are just a few of the companies we’re working with to offer employees subsidized school-day supervision in learning centers. Within a few weeks, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard had a whole Bright Horizons back-up child care center up and running to ensure employees could continue their important work on scientific research. “I’ve been really impressed with how progressive many of our clients have been,” our CEO Stephen Kramer told the Boston Globe this summer. “They recognize the need is so incredibly great.”  

If there’s a silver lining to the expanded focus, it’s that school-age needs are finally getting their due. While young children present the greatest child care needs, parents have long known that challenges don’t end at first grade, and that midday school bells and teacher service days made the elementary years anything but hitch free. The pandemic just put it into full view. 

Fortunately, the survey shows employers making all of it a priority. And that is unquestionably good news – no “ish” about it. 

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

October 1, 2020

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.