FRI AM News: La Crosse survey underlines state’s child care challenges; Gundersen losing doctors due to child care challenges

— A recent survey found 19 percent of child care centers in La Crosse County are on the verge of closing due to staffing shortages, according to The Parenting Place Executive Director Jodi Widuch. 

“It’s 372 slots — that’s enormous,” she said yesterday during an event focused on child care and early education. It was hosted at the Western Tech’s Lunda Center in La Crosse by the 7 Rivers Alliance and Competitive Wisconsin with co-hosts UW-La Crosse, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the tech college. 

Widuch explained the March survey found this shortage was linked to low compensation levels and inadequate benefits. 

“The point to that is this situation continues to get worse … there really is urgency to figuring out the workforce and the compensation so that child care centers can fill those open positions,” she said. 

Panelists said this problem isn’t unique to the La Crosse area, noting the shortage in affordable child care options represents a major workforce challenge throughout the state. Widuch and Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, agreed that pay for these workers needs to rise for the industry to stay afloat. 

Schmidt said infant care in the state costs about $12,000 per year, which “is not enough to end up paying for the cost of that care” in a child care program. 

“The true cost of care needs to be enough to actually compensate the teachers at the level that is commensurate with their education,” she said. “Our association pushes to move compensation towards parity with our K-12 schools based on education levels.” 

Widuch echoed the sentiment, arguing child care worker pay “needs to be in parity with what these professionals can earn in another sector” to keep them onboard. 

But at the same time, other panelists said the current cost of child care in some cases is keeping other people — particularly women — out of the workforce, as it can make more financial sense for them to take care of their own children. 

“It’s a very complex issue. It’s going to take equally complex solutions and a wide variety of them,” Widuch said. 

Schmidt noted over 80 percent of the child care workforce have education outside of high school and over 55 percent have at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Workers in at-home family child care programs earn $7.40 per hour after expenses on average, while those at child care centers usually earn between $12 and $13, she said. 

While many of these workers stay in the industry for years, Schmidt said over 35 percent of them rely on public assistance and 25 percent of classroom teachers in these programs experience food insecurity due to low wages. 

“It is not surprising that 75 percent of child care programs in Wisconsin are in the process of trying to hire people, and if they can’t hire people, they have to close classrooms, they have to increase waitlists, they have to reduce hours of operation,” she said. “So this is a real tenacious workforce — they stick around, they’re resilient — but at some point, we hit a breaking point.” 

Chris Hardie, CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance, said any solutions to the state’s child care issues need to start at the local level, pointing to potential partnerships between businesses and child care centers in their communities. He said companies could purchase a certain number of slots each year, guaranteeing income for the centers and helping them to expand. 

“They might be right on that cusp of, they can’t handle any more kids with existing staff but if they know that they could have four more slots — or whatever the number is — they can add more staff,” he said. “So there’s those kinds of conversations where you can form partnerships with existing child care centers to strengthen the infrastructure we already have.” 

In hopes of addressing some of the state’s early care challenges, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association recently launched a new advocacy initiative called Raising Wisconsin. It’s aimed at improving child care infrastructure, supporting the industry’s workforce and “investing in optimal child health and well-being,” a release shows. 

See more on the Raising Wisconsin effort here: 

— Also during yesterday’s event, a La Crosse County official and the director of a local child care program differed on how to best spend ARPA dollars to address child care issues. 

Brian Fukuda, a community development specialist for the county, discussed a pilot program with the School District of La Crosse that would use some of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation to convert classrooms into child care centers for young children. 

“The benefits of that is it would take advantage of existing capacities that the district has,” he said. “The county funding would be used to make those one-time modifications and renovations to the space to be able to use classroom spaces within schools to offer child care.” 

Angie Wells, program director for the Coulee Children’s Center, questioned why the pilot program would seek to establish a new child care option while programs like hers are struggling to hire workers. 

“Why spend all [those] dollars to renovate when there’s already existing programs that have those spaces available that you don’t have to renovate and buy new materials for?” she asked, noting resources like books and furniture likely represent a significant portion of the spending. 

As an alternative, she suggested partnering with “programs already out there that are struggling to find those staff.” 

In response, Fukuda noted the pilot program is meant to develop “long-term partnerships, bringing new revenue streams and new players” into the market. He said existing providers are “doing incredible work,” but added “without new revenue streams, it’s just not working. It’s a broken economic model.” 

While he conceded subsidizing wages in the industry “needs to be a top priority,” he said using one-time ARPA funding to do so can’t be a long-term solution. 

“When those ARPA funds run out, and we’ve used those funds to subsidize wages for existing child care providers, what happens in year four?” he said. “Do those wages have to go back to, you know, what they’re making now? That’s going to completely gut the industry.” 

— A representative for Gundersen Health System says the La Crosse-based care provider is losing doctors due to a lack of child care options in the area. 

Nathan Franklin, director of external affairs for the health system, highlighted this issue yesterday at the event in La Crosse. 

“I’ve only been with Gundersen about two years, and I can no longer count on two hands the number of talented, very promising young professional women — in all cases — who have left our organization because they couldn’t find child care, or the child care they could find just erased their salary,” Franklin said. 

He noted the shortage of affordable child care options is affecting organizations at all levels. In Gundersen’s case, that ranges from frontline workers and support staff to physicians and other professionals, he said. 

“If we don’t start to wrap our brains and our hands around this issue now, our next generation of leaders is going to be dealing with this issue in spades,” he said. 

This problem is compounded by demographic changes in the health care workforce, panelists at yesterday’s event said. 

Heather Schimmers, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer for the health system, pointed to the “silver tsunami” phenomenon, noting many older professionals are retiring early. 

“Before 2020 … we had a very nice, even split in the nursing profession of younger nurses joining the workforce and what I like to call our wisdom nurses,” she said. “Those are those nurses that have been committed to the profession that are just strong and are just bringing up this younger workforce. That has completely flipped.” 

Now, she said a larger portion of registered nurses at the health system are between the ages of 25 and 40. 

“Think about what we’re talking about today. I have to recruit those people. I have to get them to this community,” she said. “I have 190 acute care RN openings right now in La Crosse.” 

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— Wisconsin’s unemployment rate dropped to a record low 2.8 percent in March, based on preliminary federal figures released by the state Department of Workforce Development.

That’s down 0.1 percent from February’s rate of 2.9 percent, a DWD release shows. The state’s unemployment rate remains below the national rate of 3.6 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of employed people in the state reached a record high of 3,056,200 workers, DWD Chief Economist Dennis Winters said during a press briefing. And the number of unemployed people in Wisconsin, at 88,500, is nearing the record low of around 88,300 from May 1999, he said.

“So on the labor force, everything is looking good for all the right reasons,” Winters said yesterday. “That being employment up, unemployment is down and the unemployment rate is reflecting that.”

He added the number of nonfarm jobs in the state has reached about 98 percent of the pre-pandemic level, remaining about 68,000 jobs below full recovery. But at the same time, Winters said the state’s GDP has exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re still that many jobs down, but our productivity has gained,” he said. “So we’ve got a higher GDP based on fewer jobs.”

Data provided by DWD show Wisconsin’s GDP reached about $307 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021, exceeding the $306 billion figure from the fourth quarter of 2019.

See the release:

— This week’s episode of “WisBusiness: the Podcast” is with Hosung Shin, president of Madison-based golf simulator lounge Hook & Fade. 

Shin, who moved to Madison in 2015 after working for PepsiCo and as a consultant for GlaxoSmithKline, discusses the growth of the virtual golf market in recent years. He highlights the opportunity he sees to expand the company in the Midwest market, starting with Wisconsin. He opened the lounge near the Capitol Square in Madison in late 2021. 

“Even during the pandemic, this city was drawing in people, and people were dying to come to Madison. So all the ingredients were there to have a business like this,” he said. 

Looking ahead, Shin says he wants to “have a dominating presence” in Wisconsin in the coming years. 

“But having said that, to not expand outside of Wisconsin would be leaving the money on the table, as they say,” he said. “We’re looking at mid-to-large upper Midwestern cities where there might be already competition, but competition is good, you know?” 

Listen to the podcast here: 

See a full list of podcasts: 

— In the latest episode of “Talking Trade,” international trade consultant Chris Wojtowicz discusses supply chain disruptions and potential solutions. 

Wojtowicz is part of the Small Business Development Center at the UW Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship and is the chair of the Wisconsin District Export Council. He highlights the support available for companies looking to connect with domestic and international markets. 

He also touches on how small businesses are faring amid the pandemic recovery, and shares some of the advice he gives his clients. 

“A lot of them are a little skittish, some of them are just straight-up gung-ho, let’s get after this. Which is great, I love that particular energy,” he said. 

Watch the show here: 

— In the latest episode of “ The Show,” Elaine Coughlin of the Pablo Group talks about her role in the Eau Claire-based organization and assesses the entrepreneurial climate in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley region.

The Show also previews upcoming events hosted by the Wisconsin Technology Council. 

In the show’s Tech Metrics section, Tech Council President Tom Still discusses the investor tax credit bill that was signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers and other policy initiatives on the horizon.

Watch the show here: 


# Wisconsin farms, GOP push back on mink industry ban

# Wisconsin Supreme Court kills Monroe County frac sand facility

# S.C. Johnson looks toward sixth generation of family leadership. But who’ll step up?



– Groups want state to review Burnett, Polk Co. farm regs


– Wisconsin reaches record low unemployment rate

– Little job growth in March, but Wisconsin’s unemployment rate dips to 2.8%


– UWRF judging teams bring home top honors

– Generations Academy nears end of its first year, plans for growth


– High winds dock Merrimac ferry, gusts of 55 mph in Milwaukee

– Outdoors commentary: The fish are biting at local floats


– Federal grant will help Rock County expand its family recovery program for substance abuse issues

– Neenah baby born with rare liver disease meets the donor who saved her life


– Mequon investment adviser charged with fraud after allegedly scamming 70 investors


– Harbor District names Tia Torhorst as its CEO


– Waukesha-based American Friction Welding acquires Spinweld


– Wisconsin Supreme Court won’t hear company’s case to reinstate permit for frac sand operation


– SoftwareONE moving North American HQ and 135 jobs to Third Ward

– Minnesota developer pitches 260 apartments on ICC property in Third Ward

– California investor buys Rockwell’s Mequon campus property for $48 million


– DNR restarts effort to set bacteria standards in groundwater


– Kohl’s CEO says settlement with activist investor is ‘unlikely’


– Attanasio says Brewers won’t need new tax to continue stadium upgrades that now top $100M

– This Green Bay club teaches youth boxing and life skills, but has fallen on hard times


– SoftwareONE moving North American HQ and 135 jobs to Third Ward


– Viking’s new cruise ship to arrive in Milwaukee on May 6 to kick-off 2022 cruise season


– Focus on Energy offering efficiency incentive program

– Utility regulators want state’s energy efficiency program to play a larger role in cutting emissions


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