Outdoor play time is a fun part of the day at The Children’s Center on Hilton Head Island, which serves families throughout Southern Beaufort County. COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S CENTER

Recently, a customer at a Bluffton hair salon noted that there were only two stylists, despite a growing list of clients signing in. The reason? The shortage of available and affordable childcare in the Lowcountry has impacted individuals who would otherwise be working.

In 2019, before the pandemic, 11 childcare centers held business licenses with the Town of Bluffton. This year, only eight are still operating.

“If those (other) three Bluffton centers were open and served 40 children, that would let about 120 parents go back into the work force,” said Jody Levitt, executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Center on Hilton Head. “It’s a whole staffing issue across the board, but childcare is that one pivotal point that as people are looking for jobs, that’s a big key. Most hairdressers are female, and the childcare issue is affecting mothers in the workforce more than fathers.”

Shanel Van Jaarsveld, owner of the Kids College in Bluffton, said it was difficult hiring in the industry before the pandemic due to the stringent background checks and other employment requirements, but it is even more challenging now because the hiring pool has diminished.

“We had several staff who – due to health reasons and concerns – were not able to return to work during the pandemic,” she said. “The pandemic is still affecting our staffing levels. People nationally are leaving the childcare industry in droves. I think there are several factors contributing to this. People moved back in with family members during the pandemic; saved up money while they were bringing home an extra $300 unemployment without having to work; exposure is greater in our industry with every child representing a household; and the stigma that childcare workers are the least paid.”

Van Jaarsveld said the Department of Social Services is working on streamlining the process so that childcare workers no longer have to wait several weeks to be hired.

“That has at least helped us to be able to hire much faster than in the past,” she said. “As an Advocates for Better Care facility, we received significant grants that specifically stipulate that we are to increase pay for our teachers, which I think is phenomenal and much needed.”

Levitt said the pay rate is probably equivalent to working at a grocery store or in retail.

“We put together a really aggressive rate because we know we have to be competitive not only within the industry but outside,” she said, “but one of the positive things in comparison to retail is that it’s a Monday to Friday gig most of the time, and the schedules can be flexible.”

The process may be getting a little easier, but that doesn’t put employees in the building.

“What I am finding now is I am having a hard time replacing someone when they leave. Pre-COVID I would have 30 applications a week for a position,” said Levitt. “Right now, I have 10 to 15 positions for classroom spots, and I get maybe one applicant a month, and you don’t know if that is someone off the street or really the type of person we want in with our young children, helping to shape their minds.”

The South Carolina Childcare Voucher – previously known as the ABC Voucher – is available to working families that meet certain income thresholds. Shannon Erickson, who is the state representative for District 124, said during COVID it covered all of the first responders.

“Everyone understood they needed to be at work, and we needed them to be at work,” said Erickson. “DSS did do some funding stipends during COVID, and kept childcare center doors open, but again it doesn’t help without the people available to work. Even our public schools are having difficulty recruiting teachers, and it’s a difficult time in the state.”

Erickson also owns Hobbit Hill Preschools, and has a wait list of 100 children as well as four employee spots to fill.

“The problem is simply the bodies to do the work, like in any other industries, plus a salary cap. Food and beverage has a little more flexibility in raising their prices because people can choose to eat out or not, but with childcare, families have a pretty much fixed income,” Erickson said. “You can’t really go above a certain amount of cost per week or children’s parents can’t afford to be at work and pay for childcare. Then you have the situation that more people leave the work force because they can’t get the care.”

Those vouchers were a mixed blessing.

“When the pandemic first hit, DSS provided vouchers for essential workers,” Van Jaarsveld said. “We had less staff and higher demand. Still do. The result was that our staff were working longer hours, sometimes open to close, five days a week, and support staff had to be in classes, but we made it work.”

Levitt has an eight-month wait list – and could care for 200 children if she had the staff.

“That list is 65 to 75 children, so that’s about 70 people who cannot go to work because they cannot get childcare. Right now our staffing levels allow us to be near 120-ish and that’s not ideal, but that’s the maximum children we can take per adult,” she said. “It’s 100% a staffing issue. If I could hire on eight more people I could eliminate that wait list. If I could hire on 10, I could add even more children. I had a mother reach out one day last month, saying she just accepted a teaching position in the Beaufort County schools. We will be well into the school year before we can take that child, and so there’s a teacher unable to work, and she is moving here to take the job.”

The cost to provide childcare for an infant or 1 year-old is $250 to $300 per week, Levitt said, and there are ratio requirements that prohibit childcare workers caring for more than five of the very youngest. Each age group has certain limitations as to how many a childcare teacher is permitted to tend.

“So the problem here is, how can you stay in business and make any money yet still be affordable to the people who need it? There’s got to be some sort of influx of funding in order to make it worth their while. What you have is: A. not enough employees, and B. not enough childcare centers to care for children,” Levitt added.

There are paths for prospective employees to take, thanks to the educational opportunities at the Technical College of the Lowcountry and the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

“We’d love to see students go into early childhood. You can do your practicum work at the same time you’re going to school, and earning money, and then move into a career that’s long term,” Erickson said.

Per DSS requirements, childcare workers must be 18, have at least a high school diploma, and preferably six months experience in a childcare facility.

“Our preferred candidate is someone who is already in the DSS system. We are offering $300 sign-on bonuses for those that can just transfer from another center and are already in the DSS system,” Van Jaarsveld said. “Students who are studying Early Childhood at USCB or TCL are ideal, as we work around their school schedule, just so that we can give our full-time teachers a much-needed break. I presently have 10 staff serving 70 kids, but we are licensed for 212, and I could take more if I had more staff.”

While finding staff is difficult, finding sites to expand in the event staffing improves is no easier. Kids College currently has two locations – the original on Goethe Road and now one on Persimmon Street that will become the facility’s full-time home. In the meantime, Van Jaarsveld is hoping to expand into Okatie, but staffing isn’t the only challenge.

“I’m going to need an investor. I just need to figure out a way to find the funding to service this huge need in the community,” she said. “You think it’s hard buying a house right now?”

Staff shortages and costs are obvious issues, but Levitt said it goes beyond those.

“If nothing else, the pandemic has put the light on childcare as an issue, not only in our community but across the country. And it’s not just a value for the child and the families, but an economic value for the community,” Levitt said. “These are small businesses that are struggling to stay open, and it’s not just about childcare or babysitting. It’s a foundational piece of our economic vitality across the community. For every person that’s working, that’s one less person on the public dime. They’re putting money back into the community by spending those dollars in the community. Is it a high-paying job, a glorious job? No, but it’s an important job.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.