Belfast Telegraph

Supporting childcare for employees

By Paul Gosling

Employers For Childcare is not just a very successful business, it also holds a significant position in Northern Ireland's economy. By enabling many more parents to work, it supports families to raise their incomes, while assisting employers to obtain and retain the right staff.

The business – which operates as a not-for-personal-profit social enterprise – has 40 staff, a turnover of £1m a year, conducts £25m of transactions on behalf of 1,500 employers and supports 10,000 parents in Northern Ireland to be in paid work.

Employers and employees benefit through the use of childcare vouchers, which provide a government-backed and highly cost-effective means of arranging childcare. The costs of childcare are deducted from a staff member's pre-tax pay, which means that this part of their pay is not taxed, or subject to employer's National Insurance. Childcare is in effect subsidised through the tax system, cutting the costs for both employee and employer.

Employers For Childcare was founded by Marie Marin, who remains its chief executive and has just been awarded an OBE in recognition of her groundbreaking work. Marie had previously been a community activist based in Craigavon, concerned by gender inequality and the difficulties facing women who wanted to work.

Back in 1998, there were 700 unfilled vacancies on any given day in the Craigavon area. Workplaces were male-dominated and hours of work tended to be inflexible, with lots of unsocial hours and shift work. These work patterns were unsuited to parents with childcare responsibilities and the barriers to women's employment were a major factor in the high number of vacancies.

Marie's activities were given impetus through a visit to Northern Ireland by Hillary Clinton, who was supporting a project 'Vital Voices'. "My work in Craigavon was brought to her attention," explains Marie. As a result, Marie was invited to the United States to look at best practice in terms of family-friendly workplaces in Kansas City.

Unemployment in Kansas City at the time was just 3% – putting a real pressure on employers to be attractive to potential and existing staff. One of the ways in which staff were recruited was by having helpful policies towards childcare support. "They put those in not for ethical reasons, but for employment reasons," Marie explains. "They were using childcare as a hook to get talented people."

At the end of the study visit, the Northern Ireland delegates were challenged as to what they would do on their return to translate what they had learned into practice. Marie's response was to research how to import some of the actions on childcare that were common in the United States into Northern Ireland.

With the help of an initial £20,000 grant, Marie set up a business-to-business mentoring programme, through which US employers told companies in Northern Ireland how they could build competitive advantage through staff-friendly childcare arrangements. As a groundswell of support from employers was built, so the venture moved to a new phase brokering employers' use of the childcare vouchers introduced by the UK Government. "We are like a clearing bank, with a bespoke system, working with BACS [the official payment clearing system]," says Marie.

Employers For Childcare charges businesses a percentage of their savings from their reduced National Insurance Contributions. "Because we are a social enterprise, every single penny of profit has been put back into the community," she says.

Profits go into campaigning charitable work that provides advice to parents and people with other dependents and which publishes research on childcare in Northern Ireland.

An Approved Home Childcare service has also now been established, filling a market gap for parents who need childcare in their own homes – these include parents whose hours of work do not fit with those of nurseries and where children have disabilities and so need to stay in the home.

"We employ a hundred carers and are desperately looking for more," says Marie. Those jobs particularly suit teaching and social work graduates who cannot obtain jobs.

Employers For Childcare is moving from success to success – and in doing so is providing a service that generates a very wide range of benefits. It is a true social enterprise.

Belfast Telegraph

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