‘Invest early’: Childcare, labor challenges draw talk at Tallahassee Chamber Conference

From the Tallahassee Democrat

AMELIA ISLAND — Flashes of men, women and families, all representing different backgrounds and experiences, appeared in a high-production video that helped set the tone for the day at the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce’s annual conference.

On Saturday, the three-minute video showcased the arc of struggle, frustration and tenacity that residents and businesses have experienced while pushing through the last two years of cascading chaos from the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the video never mentioned the virus that has upended all aspects of business as usual, it didn’t have to.

The introduction was designed to cast the audience forward to what Chamber members can do on an individual and collective level to advance the community and local business interests.

The bulk of the day focused on the economy, labor force challenges and a need to pour more money and resources into early learning.

“If we really want to look at expanding our workforce we have to invest early,” said Brooke Brunner, director of Early Childhood Programs at Leon County Schools. “We need to make sure that we’re doing all that we can in the space of birth to 3 (years old) to ensure that we are increasing and impacting the brain development of our babies at birth.”

In addition, experts repeated the need for jobs and building a workforce that is prepared for the jobs for the future.

With as many as 12,000 open jobs, Tallahassee mirrors national trends where an increasing number of people are not entering the labor force by choice or by circumstances.

Lindsey Piegza, a conference keynote speaker and chief economist with Stifel, Nicolaus & Company Inc., said the U.S. economy is slowing down but didn’t say the country was officially in a recession.

Piegza said labor market improvements have been uneven, adding some of the hardest-hit sectors are still struggling to reconnect with customers, employees and supply chains. That means companies are also struggling to recapture lost jobs.

On top of a labor crunch, inflation continues to be a challenge. Twelve consumer categories gas prices, including heating equipment, asphalt, pork and corn, are all up.

Here’s a snapshot regarding cost increases in the past 12 months:

  • Asphalt – up 73.8%
  • Gas prices – up 44%
  • Eggs – up 38%
  • Prepared paint – up 25.8%
  • Mixed fertilizer – up 18.2%
  • Corn – up 9.3%
  • Used cars and trucks – up 6.6%

“We just went through a lot of data that showed the US economy is slowing down, but it’s all about being the prettiest girl in the ugly girl competition,” Piegza said.

She said several other countries around the world are seeing more drastic changes in the economy, adding the U.S. is in a better position despite the current outlook.

CareerSource Capital Region CEO Jim McShane said Tallahassee is seeing a significant number of people opting out of the labor force, adding the issue is compounded by a lack of childcare.

“We are definitely short on childcare providers,” McShane said. “We’ve got the Early Learning Coalition (of the Big Bend). They have a lot of money and they can do lot of good things. But, the problem is we don’t have enough providers. So we have a lot of women staying outside of the job market because they have to take care of their kids.”

The full reopening of all schools helps, McShane said, which allows some residents to find part-time employment during school hours.

“But, if you want full-time people, you’re going to have to provide some kind of sort of childcare availability,” McShane said. “I talked to one of our legislators last year to see if there’s a way to incentivize people to start childcare providing businesses. That’s what we need, more capacity in the childcare side.”