As Los Angeles and California grapple with the dilemma of how to best ensure a future work force that will remain competitive in the global market, some questions come to mind.

Will today’s children grow up ready to compete for jobs defined by a cutting-edge world economy? Will Los Angeles and California be able to draw upon an educated work force that will be needed for our communities to meet the high demands of an increasingly competitive business environment? Would our current work force be more productive if working parents knew that their children were being cared for in a high-quality early care and education setting?

It’s becoming clear that if we want today’s children to become tomorrow’s business leaders, we must consider the need for a strong and quality-driven early-care and education work force that is better equipped to prepare children for the future labor market. Unfortunately, the early care and education work force, or ECE, faces obstacles that, unless corrected, will have major repercussions on the future of our communities.

Nationally, more than half of all children under the age of 5 are in nonparental care while their parents work. In Los Angeles County, that number was nearly four out of 10 children as early as 2000-01. But despite the growing demand, the ECE field is facing serious challenges in attracting and maintaining a diverse, skilled and stable work force.

According to a report released by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment’s Institute of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, the position of ECE in the labor market has changed for the worse since the early 1980s. For instance, the study identified a trend in which fewer ECE center-based teachers and administrators hold a four-year college degree.

Furthermore, the study noted that the number of ECE teachers and administrators working in the field with a high school education or less is increasing. As a result, early childhood employment continues to pay significantly lower wages than other fields, with that disparity in wages and benefits contributing significantly to the insufficient educational attainment of early childhood educators.

The business community should be concerned for one important reason: Unless we agree that an educated, skilled and better compensated ECE work force is essential to our future economic well-being, our children will not realize their maximum potential. The business sector will then carry the burden of serious consequences well into the next generation and beyond.

This is because research confirms that a child who receives a high-quality preschool education is more likely to graduate from high school, pursue higher education and become a productive, tax-paying worker.

Fortunately, efforts are under way in the county to improve the quality of early education through a more skilled and educated ECE work force in the classroom.

Los Angeles Universal Preschool is coordinating countywide efforts to improve training and professional development for existing and future ECE professionals, with the goal of increasing the quality of early learning programs for young children countywide.

This five-year program, funded by First 5 LA and known as the Los Angeles County Early Care and Education Workforce Consortium, is made up of representatives from every part of the ECE field across the county and is the largest of its kind in the nation.

Under the consortium umbrella, efforts are under way to support the education and preparation of an effective, quality-driven, well-compensated and diverse ECE work force. While the primary focus is to provide opportunities for the members of ECE work force to expand their knowledge base, the driving force and long-term goal is to improve young children’s academic achievement, preparing them for their educational journey and the demanding requirements of the future job market.

Consortium efforts are expected to increase the quality of the current and future ECE work force by providing opportunities for professional and educational development. Such efforts will effect policy change that will lead to better retention of early childhood educators, improving the classroom achievements of young children, but more needs to be done.

That is why the business community’s support of a more skilled, better-educated and well-compensated ECE work force is so critical.

Ultimately, the benefits of investing in early learning for business leaders is two-fold: They will benefit from development of a future work force that meets their needs, and they will also benefit from current employees being more productive, feeling at ease knowing their children are receiving a high-quality early education in a safe environment that will better prepare them for the future.

And that is critical, because with multiple generations of our work force at stake, doing nothing carries a heavy price.

Celia C. Ayala is chief executive of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which funds programs for more than 10,500 4-year-olds annually in more than 320 preschools in Los Angeles County.

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