Child-care conference convenes amid troubling trends Vital, growing industry lacks quality controls

October 23, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In the hierarchy of American occupations, it falls somewhere between hamburger flipper and truck driver.

With a median income of $260 per week and meager, if any, benefits, the average child-care worker toils in an industry widely viewed as requiring few skills and minimal training, little continuity and scant oversight.

But those who teach and care for small children will have their day at the White House today as President Clinton convenes the first-of-its-kind child-care meeting. Clinton's conference spotlights the industry at a time of both dramatic growth and deep concern -- for its workers, its standards and its product.

Every year, more than one in three child-care workers -- as many as half when the economy is humming -- quit their jobs and go elsewhere in search of better working conditions or higher pay. That's a turnover rate almost three times that of truck drivers -- another low-skill occupation, but one that commands far better wages than child care.

In an industry whose finished product is young minds, however, it's an even scarier proposition. A mounting body of research underscores the importance of consistent supervision by attentive adults if small children are to grow up to be happy and secure adults, Yet large numbers of child-care workers live in or at the edge of poverty, holding down more than one job, juggling children of their own, scraping to make ends meet.

For legions of working Americans, including many middle-class couples with two incomes, reliance on this sprawling industry is a daily fact of life.

More than 12 million children under age 6 -- 60 percent of U.S. preschoolers and half of all infants -- are in the care of someone other than their parents for a large portion of their day. With some 4 million welfare-dependent parents being pushed into the work force, the number of children in child care could near 20 million in the next few years.

As a result, child care ranks as one of the nation's biggest growth industries. Between now and 2005, the number of jobs it provides is expected to grow by 33 percent, more than twice the average rate of growth for the work force as a whole.

The last authoritative count -- taken in 1990, and the industry has grown steadily since -- showed 80,000 U.S. day-care centers serving 5 million children and as many as 1.2 million family day-care providers operating from homes.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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