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Chamber Leadership in Cross-Sector Childcare Collaboration

The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce was uniquely positioned to coordinate and lead a cross-sector collaboration to measure and begin to solve the childcare challenges in their region.

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Childcare was obviously impacting the workforce, and as the largest business organization in Missoula, the Chamber of Commerce organized the necessary community partners to help address it.

1,000 children

on childcare waiting lists

The Challenge

After recognizing a high demand for childcare in Montana relative to supply, especially for young children, during after-school hours, and in the summer, the Childcare Initiative Committee began to collect data on the topic. Business leaders noted that their parent employees had challenges finding childcare and reported that workers often don’t return to their jobs after having a baby.

Childcare providers indicated that they were not able to meet the strong demand for their services. As many as 1,000 children were estimated to be on childcare waiting lists in the Missoula metro area, which had almost 6,000 children under age 5, according to the American Community Survey. After digging even deeper, the Committee recognized that the lack of affordable childcare was impacting area businesses.

The Solution

The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce didn’t realize that it would emerge as a leader in solving the region’s childcare challenges, but they did recognize that they were uniquely positioned to coordinate community and state partners to get the process started. After understanding the challenges faced in the local workforce, the Missoula Chamber surveyed families to get the data they needed to start proposing steps towards solutions.

Instead of selecting a single path forward, the Missoula Chamber and its new partners determined seven different models to explore to expand childcare in the region that could ease the pain local families and businesses were feeling. The Childcare Initiative increased both the public’s and community leaders’ awareness of challenges in the childcare market in Missoula and has helped build significant cross-sector collaboration in the community.

Childcare Demand Survey

In 2018, the Missoula Chamber launched a survey of families to better understand the demand for childcare in the city. The survey asked families about the ages of their children, the time of day they need childcare, and the parts of town where they need it. Local television stations, the local newspaper, and web-based media promoted the survey to help increase the response rate. In addition, operators of the local mall offered to hand-deliver surveys to every tenant and many Chamber members distributed the survey through their contact lists.

Survey results confirmed that parents faced challenges finding affordable, quality childcare. Childcare was the fourth-largest family expense across all respondents, and for families with an infant, childcare was the second-largest expense, only behind housing. 47% of respondents indicated they had scaled back or abandoned their career or expect to do so in response to childcare issues. The survey also reported “significant demand for options that covered nontraditional hours as well as days when schools are not in session.”

Exploring Various Models

With community and state partners, the Chamber is exploring various models to expand childcare. Discussions about each of these models are underway with partners; therefore, this case study provides high-level information about the concepts, not specific details. Those models include:

  • On-site childcare: Though not a solution for all businesses, mid- to large-size businesses may find benefits in attracting and retaining employees by providing on-site childcare.
  • A significant expansion of an existing childcare program: A major expansion of more than 200 spaces at one location could put a substantial dent in childcare waiting lists.
  • Multiple business co-op model: Businesses operating in the same area of Missoula are discussing the possibility of collaborating to help start a new child care center for their part of the city.
  • Remodeling and occupying existing available space: Like other cities, Missoula has unused space in buildings that may be suitable for child care.
  • Include childcare in future real estate development plans: Partnering with both commercial and residential real estate developers to investigate the feasibility of including childcare in new development plans.
  • Increase the availability of family in-home childcare: Strategies to increase the number of licensed family childcare providers would expand overall childcare availability.

Partnerships Were Critical

Leadership at the Chamber relied on a number of potential community and state partners, including:

  • Small and large companies interested in helping their parent employees find child care
  • Child Care Resources, a local organization that provides child care referral services to parents and professional development, marketing, and other services to providers
  • Missoula Early Learning Center Director Mark Roberts
  • Cushing Terrell, formerly CTA Architects Engineers
  • Montana Department of Labor & Industry
  • Montana state childcare licensing
  • Missoula County Public Schools

Is this approach a repeatable model?

Chamber leadership doesn’t expect all of these options to move forward, but even success with one or two would help reduce childcare waiting lists across the region, and all of the options explored by the Missoula Chamber are good options for any community in the country to explore.

With coordination and strategic partnerships, the Childcare Initiative increased both the public’s and community leaders’ awareness of challenges in the childcare market in Missoula. The Chamber’s intentional efforts to build cross-sector collaborations resulted in an ongoing conversation about actionable models for improvement at a community level.

Some other repeatable approaches include:

  • Direct dissemination of information and recruitment of new leaders through business members.
  • Elevating the profile of the issue by leveraging media connections to share information with the public.
  • Disseminating demand data about childcare in the region.
  • Connecting the technical assistance of a childcare operator and an architect to organizations with potential childcare expansion locations to help inform which models are feasible in particular situations.
  • Connecting with local and state agencies to address licensing and regulation barriers to expanding childcare.

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