Lack of childcare hindering WCU recruitment, retention

Finding childcare, particularly for infants, has surfaced as a growing problem for the young professionals who make up much of Western Carolina University’s faculty and staff.

Take Elizabeth McRae, a professor of history at WCU, who when she gave birth to daughter Lucy, relied on an older neighbor to pass along the name of someone trustworthy to watch her newborn.

“Finding infant care is particularly difficult,” McRae said. “Beyond the few facilities that provide it, the best option is to find someone doing in-home care for infants. With that said, finding who those folks are seems mostly a function of word of mouth.”

McRae said she has since passed on the name of her care provider to fellow faculty in the history department, keeping the woman “well-supplied with infants for the past 10 years.”

A taskforce at WCU is tackling the issue, which has developed into something of a recruitment and retention problem. WCU provides up to 60 calendar days of paid leave for childbirth or adoption. Though, at the time McRae had her child, she was forced to take leave without pay.

Headed by A.J. Grube, the group hopes to make recommendations to the Faculty Senate by the end of this month. An informal email survey of WCU faculty and staff showed about 80 percent of those responding felt some sort of need for after-school or infant care.

Grube, department head of WCU’s business administration and law and sport management, and the mother of two young children (ages 6 and 3), understands the difficulties of finding childcare.

“I think it is a reflection of a larger problem in Jackson County and our region,” Grube said. “It is not easy to find childcare in this area.”

The situation doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions. In neighboring Macon County, lack of childcare has become such a critical issue, county leaders have designated the problem an economic-development issue. The county’s Economic Development Commission has made childcare a top goal of the group when trying to lure new businesses.

Grube said solving the lack of infant care might be beyond the university’s capabilities, particularly considering the massive budget shortfall. But, the group will probably continue to explore options, and certainly could assemble a database of sorts for faculty and staff searching for care providers, she said.

Also possible is offering training through the university’s educational outreach center for people interested in becoming professional childcare providers.

WCU has the Kneedler Child Development Center on campus, offering childcare for up to 70 children from ages one through five. The center is managed by Mountain Projects, and is integrated with the university through the Division of Student Affairs.

One need that has surfaced is after-school care for older children. Grube and other taskforce members believe that it might be possible to combine such a program with WCU’s College of Education, “and the idea has a good bit of traction,” she told Faculty Senate last week.

“The idea would be to benefit Western students,” Grube said, “not just provide babysitting.”

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, an assistant professor of geosciences and natural resources and vice-chairman of Faculty Senate, applauded the efforts of the childcare taskforce, echoing Grube in saying that the issue is one the greater community of Jackson County, as well as the region, faces.

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