Two stories recently in the news resonated with me. They reinforced why the mission of Employers For Childcare — supporting parents to get into and stay in work — is as relevant today as it was 23 years ago when I founded the organisation.
The first was the picture of new mum Kate Nicholl standing with her three-week-old daughter on the steps of Stormont, and the revelation that, as an MLA, she is unable to benefit from maternity leave.
The second was an article discussing the recruitment challenges facing businesses, with effectively full employment meaning that there are simply not enough people to fill the jobs on offer.
Reading these brought me right back to where the idea for Employers For Childcare was born — Kansas City in the summer of 1999. On a study tour of the US, I spoke with employers that had been struggling to recruit staff amid high employment rates.
They described themselves as having been in a “war for talent” that saw vital vacancies going unfilled and was draining resources.
Not dissimilar to the situation we are facing today. Their solution? Investing in childcare and offering flexible working options for staff.
As the director of recruitment for one large tech company told me: “Before we introduced childcare on-site, we wasted so much on lost productivity through high staff turnover and recruitment, low staff morale and a bad public image.
“We changed all that when we started to invest our money in childcare and other family-friendly practices.”
They had the hard data to back this up, with staff turnover falling from 19% to 5% following the implementation of their new policies.
At the time, as a mother of two young boys and knowing the challenges facing parents trying to get into or stay in work, I was determined to bring back this learning and share it in Northern Ireland.
I knew change wouldn’t happen overnight, and may not come in time to help me, but at least future generations should benefit. And so I established Employers For Childcare to help parents afford the childcare they rely on to work, and to promote family-friendly working policies.
It is deeply frustrating that we are now 23 years on, my own sons are adults, and at the time of writing it feels like little has changed.
Northern Ireland is without a childcare strategy, many parents — particularly mothers — are unable to access and afford the childcare they need to work and are dropping out of the workforce, and we have a childcare sector that’s facing crisis.
All the while, businesses are struggling to recruit and retain the staff they need. Not only is this bad for parents and their children, it is stifling our economic recovery from Covid, worsening the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and setting our society back in terms of equality and diversity in the workplace.
This isn’t how it has to be. Every day my team speaks with people who want to work, increase their hours or progress in the workplace. People who are currently categorised as ‘economically inactive’ because they are caring for their children and cannot access or afford the childcare they need to work.
Experienced, skilled, talented individuals who are a loss to the workforce.
My call to our policy makers is — let’s turn this around. Let’s ensure that no one has to choose between being a parent and having a career — our economy simply can’t afford it.
Parents shouldn’t be locked out of the workforce because they are unable to access childcare, or through outdated policies that don’t reflect changes in our society.
Businesses shouldn’t be trying to recruit from a much-reduced pool of potential employees. And all working parents — including those holding elected office — should be able to benefit from proper parental leave policies.
What we need is an Executive in place to prioritise investment in a new childcare strategy, to ensure that all working parents can benefit from parental leave, and to promote the benefits of flexible working.
We need employers to realise the benefits of embracing flexible working practices. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean working from home. There are countless options to meet the needs of employers and their employees — from compressed and annualised hours to flexible start and finish times, hybrid working, and even a four-day working week.
Far from being a cost to business, this is a commercially sound investment in a generation of talented people whose working lives need to dovetail with other roles and responsibilities, boosting the pool of individuals from which to recruit — and retaining them when you have them.
It’s difficult to imagine sitting at your office desk smoking, yet until 15 years ago, this was allowed. It was only nine years ago that plastic bag charges in supermarkets were introduced. Real, meaningful change is possible.
It is my sincere hope, as we reach almost a quarter of a century since I met those employers in Kansas City who were in their war for talent, but who were brave and smart enough to think outside the box, that all organisations will offer their staff a culture that is responsive to their broader needs.
I hope that they realise the benefits this brings to them as employers.
My message to government is unequivocal and unapologetic — childcare deserves to be recognised and invested in as the key economic infrastructure that it is.
No more delays and no more excuses.
As an eternal optimist I remain hopeful that my sons’ kids will not be lamenting this same issue in the years ahead.
Marie Marin is chief executive of Employers For Childcare, a charity supporting parents and employers