Guest Column: Approaches to the state’s child care shortage

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.

In 2016 Minnesotans were alerted to a serious lack of child care by the Center for Rural Policy and Development. Since then, there have been many efforts to work toward solutions. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we have been supporting the communities in our 20-county region through various programs and trainings.

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In SMIF’s region alone, we have a potential need of 8,616 child care slots, according to a 2018 study by First Children’s Finance. Family-based child care is a challenging, labor-intensive field that requires licensure and ongoing training and long hours. It demands child development and business skills, and despite the strain on family budgets to pay for their child’s care, the compensation for frontline child care workers is typically low and offers few if any benefits. We have heard from people in our region that some businesses cannot operate fully because of the lack of available workers, many of whom cite the shortage of child care as a reason. Other southern Minnesota communities have lost potential businesses moving to their town for the same reason. This can especially hurt our smaller towns as people move to larger population centers to find accessible care.

One of the areas where we have been able to work toward addressing the shortage is through our new Communities Addressing the Child Care Shortage Program. Albert Lea, Austin, Eagle Lake, Watonwan County and Wells were selected through a competitive application process and have been working to develop actionable plans to address local child care needs. While the assumption is often that building a new child care center will solve the problem, the reality tends to be very different. In Watonwan County, the group working with SMIF has multiple projects underway including renovations to an existing center that will add 35 new child care slots in St. James, the addition of four new infant slots in Madelia and a county-wide effort to create a revolving loan program to support appropriate credentialing for licensure for child care providers.

Another way we are addressing the shortage is through providing quality training opportunities for child care providers. It is critically important to make sure current providers decide to stay in the field. Our Quality Child Care Program trainings are held each spring and fall in communities around the region. With four sessions planned this fall, providers are given the opportunity to earn training credit, learn new strategies to implement in their own programs and connect with other providers in their area to widen their understanding of best practices in child care. One of our upcoming sessions will be delivered to a learning community of Somali providers in Olmsted County in partnership with Families First of Minnesota in Rochester. Visit for more information on these trainings or to register.

Another excellent opportunity for provider training is coming up on October 26 at SMIF’s Early Childhood Care Conference. This annual event draws nearly 500 early childhood professionals from the region to Owatonna to get the tools they need to provide quality care. Registration for this event is open through October 16. Visit or contact Rona Holcomb at or 507-214-7017 to register.

We know that change does not happen overnight, but we have seen positive results even in the past few years since this challenge came to the forefront. SMIF recently worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to award 14 grants to child care centers and family child care for “shovel ready” start-up and expansion projects, resulting in an increase of 548 slots in the region. This, and the programs mentioned above, give us hope that significant change will happen in the not-too-distant future.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.