Crucial Element of NI Economic Infrastructure in Crisis
Thursday 27 October 2022
Roseann Kelly MBE, CEO of the WIB Group - Women in Business, Diversity Mark and Timely Careers Services.
There is a crisis brewing at the heart of Northern Ireland’s economic infrastructure with far-reaching implications for not just the local business community, but our society as a whole.
In a word: childcare. The universal need for support, be it through a crèche, nursery, or childminder, has for too long been overlooked and under invested in, leaving women and their families facing impossible choices within employment.
Do I work fewer hours to save on childcare costs? Or consider leaving the job market altogether at a time when the average weekly bill for a full-time nursery place is edging towards £274 per week? The sad reality is that this is now the situation facing so many parents let down by government inaction.
By 2022, the long-gestating emergency facing our childcare sector has been compounded by the wider cost-of-living crisis, which itself has intensified the situation here to the point where one in four parents say they have had to cut back on everyday necessities – things like food, heating or clothing – just to afford childcare. This is simply not acceptable.
Recent feedback from Women in Business members has only served to draw a stark red line under the imminent crisis. A spike in energy bills, for instance, combined with the huge skills shortage brought on by low wages means there is no opportunity for a crèche to pass on the costs, rendering the current business model unsustainable.
One crèche owner disclosed that multiple rooms had closed within her local facility due to staff shortages. Indeed the situation has become so dire recently that three facilities have closed within her area in the past six months. And that’s just one local story.
How are we still having this conversation? Immediate action and investment were required pre-Covid, yet still NI’s childcare sector has been allowed to drift towards breaking point.
We need to stop kicking this critical issue around departments and all work collectively to save the sector. Especially one that has such a ripple effect within our society. A society where women account for 50.8% of the NI population, according to 2021’s census data.
No economy can afford to lose this talent from their books, not to mention the diversity it brings to boardrooms and senior management – virtual and otherwise. Employers must step up too; they need to explore subsidised childcare within their buildings, accompanied by government support through rates reductions. A progressive, parent-centred initiative will help bring staff back to the office and sow the seeds of long-term retention and employee wellbeing.
For example, the Women’s Budget Group calculated that, by rolling out a system of free universal UK childcare between the age of six months and primary school, creates almost three times as many jobs as the same investment in construction.
It's an investment with the potential to reshape our collective thinking on childcare and become the first step in a journey to fix what is such a crucial, and often undermined, element of NI’s economy.
With no assembly, no budget and no action we could see the sector decimated and women forced to return to the home resulting in NI falling further down the economic competitive index. This is clearly an economic issue which will require employers and government to work together to resolve.
A key strand of our 10X economic strategy is “Inclusion”, we will fail here without action today on childcare.
Thursday 27 October 2022