While childcare challenges have been hitting American parents hard for years, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated them—prompting millions of women to leave the workforce to take over childcare duties and causing some employers to rethink how they support working parents. And as the pandemic wanes, a new type of childcare crisis has emerged: a talent shortage in the childcare workforce.
The Centers for American Progress estimates that the national childcare workforce has shrunk by nearly 8.5% in the last three years, a loss of about 88,000 jobs—setting the market far below pre-pandemic levels.
Despite widespread shortages across the sector, early childcare provider Big Blue Marble Academy has experienced rapid growth in recent years—jumping from 800 employees pre-pandemic to about 1,800 today. It kept all of its centers open through COVID and avoided layoffs, says CHRO Mary Marietta.
Marietta, who has also held HR leadership roles at Cennox, GAT Airline Ground Support Learning Care Group and more, recently shared with HRE how Big Blue Marble Academy is staying true to its mission of “nurturing little minds and growing big hearts” by doubling down on its people strategy.
HRE: You joined Big Blue Marble Academy two years into the pandemic. What were the most pressing staffing issues that COVID-19 created for the organization?
Marietta: Some of the most significant issues at that time were related to staffing. We are still dealing with unemployment being at an all-time low, so that has been a challenge, for sure, in this industry. For teaching, we’re seeing fewer people throughout the U.S. enrolling in education courses and majoring in early childhood education—so, we have less of a pool to draw from. And [at the start of the pandemic] there were unemployment payments and stipends that detracted us from drawing candidates as well.
HRE: How did you seek to remedy those issues within childcare?
Marietta: We had just one recruiting manager when I started, so we centralized our recruiting function—which is not necessarily the very typical path that we see for early childhood education—and it’s been very successful for us. We’ve added 5 additional recruiters. When I started, we had 300 openings and we’re now down to 37 openings throughout the company, which is stellar for the industry, which typically has very aggressive goals of having 10% or less of the employee headcount in openings, and we’re at 2.18% right now.
HRE: What are some of the most innovative ways Big Blue Marble Academy has worked to establish your employee value proposition to enhance recruiting and retention?
Marietta: We have a very strategic employee initiative and incentive program to show our employees how much value they have to us and to our students. We looked at health and wellness as a starter, reducing costs in benefits premiums and added a number of programs, including YuLife, which is a gamified app where employees can challenge each other. They have competitions to see who has the most steps or who’s done the most yoga sessions.
We added a 100% match Safe Harbor 401(k) [in 2022] and offer robust PTO; within our industry, we’ll see that employees are offered PTO maybe after a year. But our employees are eligible for 10 days of PTO after 60 days of employment. We also offer college assistance programs free of charge for all employees [100% tuition for child development associate credentials with CCEI, and general education scholarships with StraighterLine].
See also: ‘The Great Retention’: It all starts with hiring
HRE: What has been the reaction to these changes among employees?
Marietta: We have regularly occurring employee engagement surveys—an annual and then pulse on a quarterly basis. And we’re visiting schools, listening to our teams and they’re very happy about this; they feel valued and heard. Some of the changes we made were in reaction to our surveys from the previous year. People said they wanted better benefits, so we said, “Here’s a 401(k) and here are options to further your education.” We listened and made sure we acted on those suggestions.
HRE: What was the impetus behind the DE&I initiative you launched?
Marietta: From a personal perspective, DE&I is very important to me, as well as to our CEO, Jeff Wahl. This was something I was raised with; I grew up in Michigan in a very diverse community, and my mom and dad were proponents of equity and respect. My dad always demonstrated to me that you need to treat all people the same, whether they’re the CEO or the janitor. And I want to make sure that trickles down throughout our workforce.
We make sure we have inclusive safe spaces where people can share their story, speak about culture, educate each other, learn about differences. We started with a calendar of events [around DE&I] and created a DE&I Council and a list of initiatives. For instance, in February for Black History Month, we got lots of wonderful educational materials out to our team, and we had guest speakers for Women’s History Month. We have 96% female employees and the same on our management team and within that, we have people from lots of demographics, from different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, religions. We want to celebrate that and ensure employees feel heard.
HRE: How do you see your own career in HR progressing in the coming years?
Marietta: I see myself still here with Big Blue Marble Academy. I love what I do, and I love our team. Even though I’m in a chief role, there are lots of opportunities to continue to grow. Big Blue Marble Academy really believes in the value-add of every employee. I foresee myself continuing to grow and learn both personally and professionally and continuing to build out the function.
HRE: What factors outside of work shape how you approach HR?
Marietta: I started as a teacher many years ago, so I’ve had 25 years in early childhood education. Over the years, I had some really amazing coaches and colleagues. I was also very involved in mission work throughout Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and that greatly influenced my craft and my perspective. Since I worked in this field, I understand what teachers go through, what directors go through; it’s a very difficult job. So, I can understand the value of being there for our people, providing answers and solutions, and that’s really rewarding.