Episode 229 – In this special episode, Ron gets interviewed on the findings of the childcare benchmark report and his learnings from conversations on the podcast in 2020. This episode offers a rundown of what trends we’re seeing in the sector and an overview of key highlights from the only report of its kind in the industry.
Don’t forget to download the report at tinyurl.com/childcarebenchmark
And similar to the Preschool Podcast, the Benchmark Report is our team at HiMama, gathering information and helping to distribute that information. That’s the role we play. We don’t create the content. We don’t create the data. Same as [the] Preschool Podcast, we’re not the specialists in early-childhood education. The way we’re helping is to help get the information out there to people. Because that’s where we’ve always felt people have been struggling – just getting access to all these great resources and all this great information that’s already there.
Carmen, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thanks for having me, Ron!
Today we have on our show Carmen Choi. She’s an early-childhood education community specialist at HiMama. And we’re going to do a bit of a flip today: she’s going to be the host and I’m going to be the guest. So, this is going to be my first time ever being a guest on the Preschool Podcast. So, this should be fun, Carmen!
Yeah, I’m super excited! Just a little bit of background, everyone: it’s Carmen from HiMama. You guys might know me from conferences, the webinars or even the Podcast. I’m the one coordinating things in the background. And really excited to have Ron in the hot seat today. And we’re going to be talking all about the [2020 North American Child Care Sector] Benchmark [Report]. Are you excited, Ron?
I’m very excited to talk about the Benchmark. It’s hot off the press. And obviously 2020 has been a very different year. And so I’m really keen to, I guess, help share some of our learnings from that Benchmark Report, as well as a lot of the things we’ve been hearing on the Preschool Podcast with childcare programs battling through this global pandemic.
For sure, it’s definitely been ups and downs. And we’re really keen to get your insight, Ron, on the Benchmarks. So, before we dive into the report, I wanted to get a little bit personal. So, give us a bit of background on your involvement in the ECE [early-childhood education] space, Ron, through HiMama, as well as having your own two little boys there.
Yeah, so a bit of background on me: I actually studied engineering in school and went on and did some consulting in Canada and in the U.K. and the Netherlands and spent some time in the US, as well. And I always wanted to, first of all, start my own business and, second of all, start a business where I could have a social impact.
And talking to friends and peers who had young children back in 2013 when we started HiMama, there was a pretty common thread around childcare and experiences in childcare. And so I decided to dive a little bit deeper into it. And I met with dozens of childcare programs in person and just really had open-ended conversations with them about what their challenges were and things that they were struggling with and needed support.
And coming out of that, one thing that was just really, really clear to me was that there wasn’t a lot of support in childcare and early-childhood education. And everybody was just out there trying to figure it out for themselves.
And so that was kind of when the light bulb went off for me. And I said to myself, “This is something that I’d like to dedicate my time to.” And certainly an area that I could have an impact [on]. And that is part of the thinking behind both launching this this podcast, is sharing and disseminating that knowledge that lots of really more experts than me can talk to early-childhood education, as well as this Benchmark Report that we launched a few years ago.
And so that’s sort of where things started with HiMama. Since then, I have also become increasingly passionate about the learning and development education side of childcare, as well. And I feel like as an organization that supports and works in childcare and early-childhood education, I feel like we have a responsibility to understand the education side of childcare and be part of that conversation.
And then as of a little over three years ago, I had my first child – I had a boy, Weston. And then more recently, a little over a year ago, another boy, Reid. And so that has just given me even more appreciation for how difficult the role of an early-childhood educator is and really how underappreciated that role is, given just how difficult it is to not only make sure children are healthy and safe, but also learning and developing at the same time is a certainly very, very challenging job, as everybody who listens to the Preschool Podcast surely knows.
For sure. And I’m kind of hearing two things here: it seems that there’s kind of an alignment with that entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t know about you but I think that being in childcare, you kind of have to be an entrepreneur, be creative, adapt on your toes. And that’s whether you’re running a program or in the classroom because they’re always juggling so much and wearing so many hats there.
Yeah, certainly. I mean, there’s lots of learnings coming out of 2020. But that is one of them, which is just that at the end of the day, you have to look out for yourself as an individual, as a childcare organization, whether you’re an owner, a director or a teacher, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing.
But it’s been a challenging year and so you have to be adaptive. And you have to both, in terms of what you’re doing in the classroom and in your center, as well as in your own personal life, is really key this year. And that’s certainly been a theme on the Preschool Podcast and in the Benchmark Report, in fact.
So, since you’ve touched on the Benchmark Report, let’s shift over to that piece. Tell us about why you started it five years ago and how it’s evolved over the years.
Yeah, so I mentioned earlier that when I kick-started things with HiMama, I met with a lot of childcare programs. And one of the things that I learned in those conversations and in other conversations with folks in the field is that the knowledge sharing was very localized. So, oftentimes directors and administrators of childcare programs had a good understanding of what other programs in their area were doing, but they had very little knowledge or understanding at a wider scope than that.
And so that was a big driver for me to launch the Benchmark Report five years ago, was to just give everybody more insight into what others are doing. It’s hard to say, “Am I doing a good job with my financials or not such a good job? Am I focusing on the right things, in terms of my priorities? Or am I not?” And it’s hard to do that in a vacuum, without knowing what others are doing. And so that was the idea.
So, five years ago we launched it. That was when it was me doing everything from surveying and authoring the report and communicating that out to everybody. And it has certainly evolved over the years to be really, I would say, the go-to report in terms of understanding benchmarks in the sector. There’s nothing else out there like it, which, again, is why I wanted to do it.
And I think what’s special about it is that the information comes from childcare and early-childhood education programs themselves. So, it’s really self-reported information. And similar to the Preschool Podcast, the Benchmark Report is us, as HiMama, gathering information and helping to distribute that information.
That’s the role we play. We don’t create the content; we don’t create the data. Same as [the] Preschool Podcasts, we’re not the specialists in early-childhood education. The way we’re helping is to help get the information out there to people. Because that’s where we’ve always felt people have been struggling, is just getting access to all these great resources and all this great information that’s already there.
I love that. So, just to kind of echo what you’re saying, this is really the voice of people in the industry. And this year we actually had 862 people complete the whole survey – and it’s a pretty hefty one – to come up with the Benchmark.
So, for 2020, the biggest thing obviously is COVID 919-. And let’s segue into the stats and the data that’s coming out with some key highlights here. Enrollment and occupancy, one of the big things, is down by 33% because of all the different factors and COVID being a big one. What are your thoughts on that trend?
Yeah, I think enrollment levels has actually been to me one of the most interesting and challenging data points from the Benchmark Report and what we’re seeing. And enrollment levels are kind of sitting around the 50 to 60% mark of, call it, pre-COVID enrollment.
And what is challenging here is it seems to be more or less plateauing where I would have thought that in September and through the remainder of this year, we would have seen a trend of increasing enrollment. But it’s been relatively flat since the summer. And that’s really putting a financial strain on childcare programs.
And even just speaking anecdotally from my personal experience: we live in Toronto in Canada and typically childcare in Toronto is extremely difficult to get. And we had put our children on wait lists a long time ago because basically, as soon as you find out you’re having a baby in, like, eight or nine months, you have to get on a wait list.
And within the last few weeks, we’ve had multiple phone calls from childcare programs saying they have free space, which is just another data point that says the market dynamics have really changed over the course of 2020.
For sure. And we’ve also seen a lot of centers kind of pivoting their main revenue streams – like, their number one revenue drivers – to be offering alternative services in the form of online learning and stuff. And HiMama has really risen to that with the activity centers. So, kind of helping early educators not reinvent the wheel with their activities and being able to still keep in touch with parents on that front.
Yeah, that’s certainly one of the positive aspects that’s come out of all the challenges in 2020, is innovation. So, we are seeing programs be a lot more adaptive. And in the Benchmark Report, specifically, 70% of respondents said that they were providing families with at-home activity ideas, which you mentioned HiMama was supporting with. 76% of respondents said they were using video or Zoom [online video conferencing] calls to connect with families and conduct learning. There was also 42% of respondents [that] said they were providing activity kits for families to take home.
And so it was great to see childcare programs being innovative in adapting and also embracing technology. Early-childhood education is typically a bit slower to adopt technology. And again referring back to the Benchmark Report, very consistently, year over year, technology ranks very low or lowest in terms of priorities for early-childhood education.
But 2020 was a great year to exemplify how technology should be thought of more in terms of what the objectives or value provided is, versus the technology itself. In this case in 2020, it was helping with customer satisfaction, the number one thing, number one rated priority for childcare programs. It was helping with the education side of things, which was the second-highest priority.
It helps with enrollment because one of the big pieces we talk about on the Podcast as a theme is just communication, communication, communication, so important. It’s helping with keeping parents engaged. And so when they are comfortable bringing their children back, they will come back to your childcare program because you’ve stayed in touch with them.
So, all these things have just helped, I think, provide a greater appreciation for the value of technology. And that’s from the childcare side. But also on the personal side, too, I think we’ve all had conversations about how much more difficult this year would be without technology. And again, speaking personally with a one-year-old and a three-year-old, being able to FaceTime [online video conference] and see the grandparents and spend time with them remotely has been invaluable.
Yeah, and I think the data really shows how the early-education sector has rallied to the cause and basically pivoted, leaned into learning new skills. And that’s truly a testament to serving the community. So, really awesome job, everyone who is an educator out there.
And you touched on priorities – let’s shift over to risks. So, from the Benchmark Report we’ve seen that finances has been bumped up to the number one risk for 2020 from the second place in 2019. And labour is still up there. So, let’s talk a little bit about the financial side of things.
Yeah, that’s probably one of the most interesting data points coming out of the Benchmark Report, is that finding and retaining talent has always been, year-over-year since 2016, the number one risk in childcare. For the first time in the history of the Benchmark Report it is not and the number one risk is finances. And that probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a lot of folks out there who might be personally dealing with these challenges.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of how people are doing here. I do think it’s relatively consistent with a lot of other sectors in terms of the major takeaways, which is that, one, revenue is down considerably. So, just looking at the data specifically, revenue is down, looks like about 64%.
But also, in lockstep with that, childcare programs have been able to rein in their costs, which has been a critical activity to conduct to continue to be sustainable, is trying to lower your expenses. And they’ve been able to do that to the tune of a 60% decrease, which means that overall they’ve been able to mitigate the impact on their bottom line, which, again, has been key.
The challenge is that we’re in an environment where you have to make decisions where you maybe feel like you’re letting people down, like putting your staff on furlough or doing temporary layoffs or this type of thing.
But we have to think about [and] we have to be pragmatic and think positively and help our staff get access to the supports that are out there and remind ourselves that the reason we’re doing these things is to be sustainable so that we can reopen and be there for them to bring them back when that time is right. So, no doubt it’s been challenging. But overall, folks are adapting quite well on the whole.
Yeah, and to piggyback off of that, we had Dr. Calvin Moore join us on a webinar on the Benchmark last week. And he actually mentioned that despite the challenges of COVID-19 and of running a childcare business, they’ve seen a record high in people renewing their professional development certificates. So, we have educators on the side who are sharpening their knives and kind of getting ready for when the pandemic will end because this isn’t going to be forever, right?
Yeah, and again, I referred before about being adaptive both as a childcare program as well as personally as an individual. And this is another good example of that where if you’re an early-childhood educator and you’re out of a job because enrollments down, you’re not alone. There’s lots of folks in your boat.
And we’ve seen some great innovation from the ECE’s [early-childhood educators] out there who maybe take on two or three children in a smaller group setting and provide childcare to those children as they wait for some of the opportunities to reopen as enrollment hopefully starts coming up again through next year.
For sure. The next thing we have here is talking about the future outlook and confidence in the childcare sector. We’re kind of seeing a mixed bag but generally 33% of our respondents are reporting that they’re not really optimistic about the sector going forward. What’s your two cents there?
Yeah, I mean, not surprising. I don’t think there’s a lot of optimism right now, especially as we head into wave two in a lot of places with COVID-19. So, it’s not a very optimistic time, to be honest with you.
That said, there is also some pretty hot-off-the-press news in terms of vaccine efficacy and perhaps a light at the end of the tunnel. So, my hope is that people’s optimism has increased somewhat since the time of conducting this Benchmark Report. We also have a little bit more clarity in the United States on a presidential transition, which is positive.
So, I think we’re getting more positive information, more certainty in the future, which is all positive. That said, it’s still a grind, for lack of a better word, in terms of making sure we continue to balance the books and continue to be able to pay the bills to keep the lights on.
For sure. And from your previous interviews with podcast guests recently, do you have any key learnings or highlights that you want to put on the radar, since we’re talking about this?
Yeah, I mean, we talked a bit about innovation and being adaptive as been a really big theme. Another topic that is being discussed quite extensively – and is quite polarizing – is around child development during COVID-19 and the lack of potentially challenging developmental opportunities for children that are out of childcare.
And on the one side, we have folks that are very concerned about children’s development regressing or stalling. And then on the other side, we have a lot of folks who say kids are kids and they’re going to learn if they’re at home and in different environments than a childcare program, which I tend to agree with.
However, the one point that has been a conversation point on the Podcast, which I also agree with, is that we probably need to focus that conversation not so much on children as a whole, but children who may have special needs or be in a unique situation where their development would suffer by not being able to attend a childcare program on a more regular basis. And that’s really where we should be focusing our efforts.
The other thing that I would just reiterate, just because it’s so, so, so important, is just communication. Like, over-communicating to parents and families is just so important. The way I would almost think about it is like, until you have a family that comes to you and says, “Please stop sending me so much information,” you’re probably not communicating enough.
I think a lot of folks tend to err on the side of caution with not wanting to bother people. But typically it’s very difficult to over-communicate information. Families love to know what’s happening and stay involved, even if they’re not currently enrolled with their children at a specific moment in time.
That is so true. I think the biggest thing that has really come out of navigating the pandemic with the early educators that we support is that everyone is leaning into that aspect of community. And just as if you’re sitting at home feeling frustrated or lonely or like you’re not supported, parents are also feeling that same pain. So, as a provider, kind of creating that community is really helpful on both sides to support each other.
Yeah, absolutely. And I had one good conversation on the Podcast with a guest as well, which they were saying, they’re also very flexible with their teachers and families in terms of what channels they use to communicate. So, again, everybody’s in the same boat here.
And so for example, if you’re not comfortable using a Zoom call, maybe you can give a family a phone call or send them a text message or an email. Whatever you’re comfortable with, do that. And again, like you said, everybody’s dealing with this. And so likely your families are having the same thoughts and challenges that you are.
For sure. And also exploring new channels, too. We’ve seen an overwhelming number of people start experimenting with social media. We have one person, Stacey, who comes onto our webinars almost every week and always talks about the Instagram workouts that she does. And she invites parents along with her, which I think is phenomenal because they’re getting through this together.
And so one last question, Ron, before we wrap up, as we are running out of time here: Do you have any words of encouragement for our listeners that are tuning in?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’d say they’re words of encouragement but more of a recommendation, which is to take care of yourself. This is a very challenging year; it’s tough. And know that you’re not alone in this being a tough year. And being an early-childhood educator is hard enough in the best of times, let alone in 2020. And so make sure that you take the time to take a break, to think about all the things that are great in your life and good in your life. And spend time on the things that help give you energy and let you sort of refill that energy bucket.
And if you’re really struggling talk to somebody about it, whether that’s family or friend or your manager at work or a peer. Everybody’s struggling right now so everybody will… people can empathize with what you’re dealing with. And so make sure to take care of yourself, very important. Early-childhood educators are heroes, as far as I’m concerned, and always looking out for other people. And we have to remember that you have to look after yourselves in order to effectively look after other people. So, make sure to take the time to do that.
Such good advice, Ron. Something that we’re doing here, too, at HiMama, which is really prioritizing taking care of ourselves to refill that energy bucket. So, definitely everyone who’s tuning in, if you take anything away, this is very, very key moving forward.
And I think that’s a wrap, Ron. For everyone who’s listening and you want to see what’s more in the Benchmark Report and dive into the numbers yourselves, you can go to this link: www.TinyURL.com/ChildcareBenchmark. Awesome. Thanks so much, Ron!
Thanks for having me, Carmen!
Yeah, no worries, thanks for having me!