Employers in western Wisconsin are working to improve access to child care for rural communities as a way to support the local workforce.

Organic Valley, Vernon Memorial Healthcare and several other local employers helped create a shared services network for child care providers in Vernon County that could begin in early 2019. 

"All of these folks have been at the table to sort of say what do you need for support? How can we support this initiative as it moves forward? And it's been a remarkable experience to see the community really rally around this," said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, which is helping lead the project.

The project was awarded a four-year grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin in November 2017. The network is designed to help keep child care programs in business by offering support services and sharing costs.

"Instead of having five programs employing a part-time bookkeeper, the network would have a bookkeeper that does the bookkeeping for all of the programs and does the purchasing for all of the programs," Schmidt said.

She said the county will also fund a relief squad through the network, offering back-up staff in case a provider is sick or unable to operate.

Schmidt said the network hopes to begin enrolling child care providers by the beginning of 2019.

Chris Hardie, executive director of economic development agency The 7 Rivers Alliance, said the project is just one example of the way more businesses are investing in child care in response to a shortage of workers.

"The lack of child care is keeping people out of the workforce or forcing them to work part time and that keeps the challenge of finding workers even greater than it is," Hardie said.

Hardie said access to affordable child care was one of the top challenges businesses listed in a recent study on the future of the workforce in the Coulee Region.

A 7 Rivers Alliance survey of regional businesses executives found 53 percent of respondents said they may be willing to subsidize employee child care if it would guarantee availability.

Hardie said employers are looking at child care as a recruitment tool.

"The first question that somebody has if they’re going to move to this region after they’re offered a job is, what’s the availability of child care? And if you're an employer and can't answer that or don't have a good answer for that, it doesn't give you an advantage when it comes to recruiting that person," Hardie said.

Hardie said local studies have also found that a lack of stable child care is a hidden cost for businesses. 

A survey of working parents in Jackson County recently found 51 percent of respondents spent at least an hour making child care arrangements while at work.

Applying that to economic development numbers from the county, Hardie estimates that time comes at the cost of $200,000 per month in lost productivity for local businesses.

"That ought to raise some eyebrows and get the attention of employers to say we’ve got to come up with a way where we can help to be a partner in solving the child care shortage," Hardie said.

Some employers in Jackson County are already working to address the issue. Co-op Credit Union in Black River Falls recently helped start a committee of businesses, county agencies and child care providers to study the availability of child care.

Marianne Torkelson, vice president of business development and training at the credit union, said Co-op Credit Union started organizing the group after hearing concern from several employers.

"What started as a lobby conversation with a couple of businesses in Jackson County kind of grew into this grassroots effort to really look at what are we having for child care issues and how is it impacting our workforce," Torkelson said.

Torkelson said the group recently completed the survey of working parents and is still working to collect information from child care providers and employers. But the group hopes to eventually find creative solutions to supporting more child care options in the county.