'Growing Crisis In Child Care' focus of statewide conference


More than 500 civic, business, education, health care, and government leaders from 118 Nebraska communities and 15 states gathered in Kearney for the sixth annual Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference focused on the importance of quality early childhood care and education for children and families in Nebraska.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen provided opening remarks, marking the first time the state’s highest-ranking official will speak at the conference.

At a time when 91% of counties in Nebraska do not have enough available licensed child care slots to meet current demand and 11 counties lack a single licensed provider, Nebraskans are coming together to help solve a growing child care and economic crisis.

The conference gave attendees the opportunity to learn about quality early childhood education programs and services and their important role in economic development and community vitality.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Walter Gilliam, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

In addition to the keynote, a panel featured state and community leaders, including Brian Maher, Nebraska Commissioner of Education; K.C. Belitz, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development; Heath Mello, CEO and president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce; Heidi Pieper, southwest regional manager at the Nebraska Farm Bureau; and Michelle Suarez, an early childhood advocate and retired principal.

As a national expert in early childhood, Gilliam spoke about the impact that early learning has on the economy, and how the early childhood workforce is essential to the country’s economic recovery after the pandemic in his keynote titled, “All Roads Start With Child Care.”

“In Nebraska today, 31% of parents with children under the age of six — and 23% of all parents—said they have left the workforce because they were unable to find affordable child care,” said Gilliam. “With as many as 80,000 jobs open in Nebraska, our child care crisis is an economic crisis. Child care and the early childhood workforce who provides that care and education are vital infrastructure to our economy, as much as roads, bridges, and other vital supports that make the good life possible.”

Among the panelists was Wayne Area Economic Development Director Luke Virgil.

Virgil was a panelist in "Getting Down to Business on Solving the Child Care Crisis," which focused on the role of quality affordable child care, which allows working families to drive the economy.

"As people get into the work force, because they’ve been outside of the workforce for so long, they don’t have the money to pay for that childcare upfront. And let’s face it, it’s expensive. So if they are stuck not able to get into the workforce because they’re worried about that cost upfront, and they’re not going to get those benefits for months at a time, it’s a deterrent for them to even get back into the workforce and they’ll stay in the cycles that they’re already in,."  Virgil said.

"I think the flexibility has to change dramatically with our employers. This is the only way you can recruit people and retain them. If they want that work life balance, you have to be more flexible with the hours you let them work, if they have kid issues, you’ve got to kind of just let them drop and say ‘yep’. The loss of productivity for two hours with that kid is better than the loss of a year’s productivity or five year’s productivity because I don’t have that person." Virgil said.

"I think challenging ourselves as employers, as service providers to really step up and look at those things from a foundational level and say ‘is this something we can change? Let’s go after it.’ Virgil added.

Sixteen breakout sessions focused on topics including economic development and community vitality, early childhood research, innovative child care business models, programs, policy, communications, and outreach. We Care for Kids, a statewide campaign promoting the importance of quality and affordable early childhood education, also presented at the conference.

Attendance for the 2023 conference was more than double that of the inaugural 2018 conference and has attracted national attention. The growth demonstrates the importance of and increasing demand for quality early childhood care and education programs.

This year’s event was coordinated and facilitated by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and sponsored by First Five Nebraska, Nebraska Association for the Education of Young Children, the Nebraska Association of School Boards, Nebraska Business Development Center, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, Nebraska Community Foundation, Nebraska Department of Economic Development, Nebraska Department of Education, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative, Nebraska Early Learning Connection, Nebraska Economic Developers Association, Nebraska Extension, Panhandle Partnership, Inc., the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

For more information about the conference, visit thrivingchildrenconference.com/2023.