Local parents are scrambling for child care.
"When I was pregnant, I printed off the list of daycare providers in Douglas County and got started making phone calls. By the time I finished calling one page I was near tears. Everyone that I talked to said 'no' and they wished me luck trying to find a provider," said Emily Sebek of Alexandria.
The crunch has even forced some parents to plan pregnancies around their child care provider's next opening.
In Douglas County, there are 27 fewer child care providers today than there were just 16 months ago - and that has created a noticeable child care shortage, particularly for infants and toddlers.
Lynn Barten of Alexandria has worked in family child care for 17 years and said she gets calls every day from people looking for child care.
"Some parents have told me, 'I've called 40 providers and nobody has openings,'" she told the Echo Press.
WHY THE DECLINE?
There have been a few retirements and some providers are opting to take fewer infants and toddlers than their licenses allow, according to Barb Kleinschmidt, Douglas County social worker.
Some providers have simply closed their doors. Some child care workers have walked away from the career; they're paid more in dishwashing jobs, said Joni Jacobson, early childhood education instructor at Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC).
"It's sad to see someone who's fantastic with children choosing to do something different because they don't feel they can make a living because we know they can," Jacobson said.
"Pay needs to be on par with the training and education that [child care providers] are required to have," said Rondi Wussow, early childhood education instructor at ATCC.
"There's a stereotype that [a child care provider is] a mom that doesn't want to work and that you can't make a living doing family child care," Wussow said.
"I think we need to change perceptions in order to continue to increase the number of really high quality providers," Jacobson added.
"We need to be seen as the professionals we are. I wish the community saw early childhood - in all forms - as the teachers we are. There are ways to make a living doing family child care. This is the best job ever ... to be able to make a difference in the future," Barten said.
WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
"It's not just a crisis for families looking for child care, it's a crisis for employers and the entire community," Jacobson said.
Part of the solution may be in the hands of local employers.
"Employers need to recognize their employees are there because there's someone taking care of their children on a consistent, high-quality basis," Wussow said.
Consider the ripple effect, she said. People who can't find child care can't get jobs or they may have to quit a job they have ... and that creates another local job opening.
What if employers considered offering child care?
It's happening in Brandon.
In 2014, Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association leadership took a proactive approach and ultimately opened a child care center downtown for children of employees and the community. It's called Little Peeps.
Today, there are 14 kids enrolled. Ten are Gardonville employees' children and four are children of community members.
Dave Wolf, Gardonville's CEO and general manager, said they're proud to offer the perk to employees.
"I would challenge all business leaders to take a hard look at child care solutions for employees. A lot of [our employees] are two-income families and they're young families. [Child care] is a very dynamic problem that's shifting constantly," he said.
Alisha Schmitke, child care director of Little Peeps, said on average, they're receiving inquiries about openings for infants at least weekly.
"I can see a great need in the area for child care. I feel like we're meeting a need and I'm looking forward to meeting it more when we expand," Schmitke said.
Wolf said there are plans to expand Little Peeps to a larger space and potentially partner with other Brandon businesses on the venture.
There's no shortage of interest in early childhood-related careers. Enrollment in the early education program at ATCC is steadily growing, according to Jacobson and Wussow.
Most program graduates have jobs waiting for them.
In the meantime, as the local child care shortage rolls on, here's the best advice child care providers have for parents: Plan ahead.
"It is very nerve racking as a parent trying to find someone that you can trust to watch your child," Sebek told the Echo Press.
"My son is almost 10 weeks old. I will soon be returning to work and my son will soon be starting daycare. I just hope that we made a good decision with the daycare he will be attending. But it's not like we had many options to choose from," she shared.
LICENSED CHILD CARE
August 2013 139
July 2014 154
October 2014 137
August 2015 138
November 2015 127
Source: Douglas County
LOCAL CHILD CARE RESOURCES
Looking for child care?
• Parent Aware
• Lakes Area Professional Child Care Association
Questions about becoming a provider?
• Barb Kleinschmidt, Douglas County social worker
• Joni Jacobson, Alexandria Technical and Community College
• Rondi Wussow, Alexandria Technical and Community College