More than 40 people filled the meeting room at the Carlton County Transportation Building Tuesday, Jan. 14, in Carlton for a town hall meeting on the child care shortage in Carlton County.

The group gathered to discuss the difficulties in obtaining child care in Carlton County, how it affects the lives of community members and to begin to brainstorm innovative solutions to increase the sustainability and supply of quality child care businesses.

The group included just five men, but also featured nearly 15 child care providers. Three women brought their children to the meeting because they were unable to make other arrangements for the evening, emphasizing the need.

Carlton County applied for and was selected to receive a Rural Child Care Innovation Program (RCCIP) grant from First Children’s Finance (FCF). FCF is a nonprofit organization that works to help families and communities thrive by increasing the availability, affordability and quality of early child care and education, according to the organization’s website. The grant program is an FCF initiative funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services to address the challenges of rural child care in Minnesota through the lens of rural economic development.

As part of the two-year grant, FCF conducted surveys of local family child care providers, child care centers, employers and parents.

During the meeting, FCF business development manager Teri Steckelberg said approximately 240 infants and toddlers who need care — about 31% of the infant and toddler population in Carlton County — do not have a slot at a child care center or family provider. Carlton County has an estimated capacity of 354 slots for infants and toddlers, but officials estimate a need for nearly 600 spaces.

The survey results presented at the meeting focused on the 229 parents who responded to the survey sent out in December. Nearly 28% of those who responded said they have withdrawn from the workforce or declined employment due to difficulty making childcare arrangements.

Parents also reported child care issues led to them to miss work, be late or prevented them from working overtime or moving to a different shift.

More than half of the 18 employers that responded to the survey said the child care shortage has impacted their business.

What’s more, more than 100 of the parents surveyed — or 45% — said the shortage has impacted their thinking about having another child.

The survey showed parents prioritize licensed and certified providers, but additional regulations by state and local governments are preventing more people going into the business or causing providers to leave the industry.

One respondent to the survey said they had contacted 12 different providers in Carlton County, but only one of those had room for a child.

The first part of the program culminated in Tuesday’s town hall meeting on ways families, employers and providers can work together to bridge the gap and increase the supply of child care for families in Carlton County.

The crowd split into smaller groups to generate ideas to help support current providers, build the workforce and encourage new providers. Ideas included:

  • Working at the state legislative level to create tax credits or other incentives for parents

  • Reducing the regulatory burden for current providers

  • Creating new early childhood training programs at local institutions like Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College that are affordable and take less time to complete

  • Encouraging businesses to subsidize child care costs or sponsor on-site child care facilities

  • Working with existing organizations like local churches to make additional space for child care centers

After the meeting, the RCCIP “Core Team” — which includes local officials like Cloquet Community Development Director Holly Hansen and Carlton County Commissioner Dick Brenner — will reconvene to refine the ideas discussed at the meeting and develop a “community solution action plan” that can then be implemented to help address the shortage over the next two years.

“The discussion tonight allows for some opportunities for ways the community can support and assist providers,” Steckelberg said. “There were some creative ideas how the community can form a partnership between the public and private child care providers to help meet the needs of families.”