As Minnesota makes headway in the fight against COVID-19 and looks to the next chapter of our economy, strengthening our workforce is an urgent priority. Usually, conversations on workforce development focus on high school students, adults looking to reskill or upskill, or unemployed workers who need to get back into the market.
Rarely do our conversations focus on Minnesota’s toddlers.
But that’s exactly what we should be talking about if we want to strengthen our economy for generations to come.
Research from the University of Minnesota and elsewhere has shown that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are the most important window for mental and emotional development of their entire lives.
Yet as a state and as a nation, we are woefully under-investing in this period of development, compared to K-12. And particularly in communities of color, resources for early childhood development are desperately lacking.
Recently, I took part in a cross-sector alliance of employers at the Itasca Project to examine what to do about this challenge. The results of our efforts were just released in a report that is a must-read for any employer in Minnesota. I encourage every business in the state to give it a close read.
Working with experts in neuroscience, education, and healthcare, we learned that 80% of the brain’s architecture is established in the first 1,000 days of life. Millions of neural pathways are being connected in those first three years, laying the foundation for higher-level processing that happens later.
That means our littlest Minnesotans need lots of time with caregivers: reading, bonding, singing, establishing a connection and being exposed to the right developmental stimulus that leads to growth. In the metro area alone, there are over 100,000 children under 3 – all who need this kind of support.
Yet so many kids aren’t getting what they need. In the region, 21% of births lack adequate prenatal care; 37% of Minnesotans reported some level of food insecurity in 2020; and under half of Minnesota families report reading to their children every day.
Families need to understand how vital those first 1,000 days are – and they need to have time required to spend with their infants and toddlers to get them on the right learning track during this critical window.
Our group came to three basic conclusions of how employers can support this work:
· Sharing the story of early childhood development, so that everyone understands how important this developmental window is;
· Adopting family-friendly policies, practices, and resources to support employees and their children — the group will be producing an employer toolkit soon;
· Supporting advocates for increased funding and better service delivery for families in greatest need.
Our findings also led The Itasca Project to join “Little Moments Count,” bringing employers into a Minnesota-based statewide movement to help parents, caregivers, and the community understand the importance of early brain development.
While our report stopped short of specific policy recommendations for the Legislature, there are many initiatives that Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are advocating for children and families this session that are very relevant to this work.
First, a paid family medical leave program would give parents the opportunity to take care of their infants in those early weeks of their lives, without fear of losing their jobs or going broke. While 10% of Minnesota workers take a family or medical leave in any given year, over 25% of those leaves do not include any wage replacement. Our proposal would cost employers the price of a cup of coffee per worker per week, and it would help lower-wage workers and small businesses the most.
Second, we have to significantly increase access to quality childcare so that infants get the developmental support they need – and parents can provide for their families. Our Childcare Economic Development Program is a proven vehicle to add thousands of new childcare slots across Minnesota by investing in business and technical supports to help new childcare businesses take off on solid footing.
And, that care needs to be more affordable for families who need it most. Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Program could leverage lots of federal dollars to increase rates paid to providers for care to low-income customers if the Legislature acted to simply make a small increase to our matching contributions for these programs.
Lastly, we need to start even earlier than birth if we’re going to get our littlest learners off to the right start. We propose increased investments in the Integrated Care for High-Risk Pregnant Women program, which works with community partners to address some of the worst-in-the-nation disparities in birth outcomes for African American and Native American moms and babies.
Initiatives like these aren’t free, but their cost in the short term pales in comparison to the long-term benefit they bring our littlest Minnesotans. And, they help attract and retain a workforce that knows Minnesota is a great state for families.
If we don’t take actions like these, there is no “do-over” for the first 1,000 days: once they’ve passed, that developmental window is gone.
Employers and policy-makers need to come together to ensure we’re doing everything we can to help Minnesota’s future workforce get off to the right start. I hope the Itasca Project report is the beginning of a much larger conversation on what Minnesotans can do for our future workforce.
Steve Grove is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.