Hospitals around the nation are increasingly considering on-site child care centers to bolster recruitment and retention efforts amid staffing shortages. Still, only about a third of U.S. hospitals offer any child care benefits—and just a fraction of those include on-site child care services.
But for some employees of Arkansas Children's Hospital, its Child Enrichment Center is practically a family tradition. “We have several families who are now in their second generation of attending the center—the parents came through when they were children and now their children attend,” says Crystal Kohanke, M.S., PHR, SHRM-CP, ACC, senior vice president and chief people officer at Arkansas Children’s in Little Rock. “It's a really neat center with a great history.”
That history began in 1986 when the center opened its doors as a convenient, educational child care option for the hospital’s employees and their families. Today, it serves about 200 children and has a lengthy waiting list of staff members looking to enroll their children. “If we were able to double our size, we’d fill it up tomorrow,” Kohanke says.
It’s a similar situation at Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. Launched in 2003, its Children's Learning Center also operates at full capacity with overflow demand—especially for placements in its infant and toddler programs. Both centers meet an important need: providing a high-quality, education-based child care service located just steps from where the children’s parents work.
Kohanke says the waiting lists can sometimes dampen the Child Enrichment Center’s allure as a recruitment tool, but both she and the leadership team at Driscoll Children’s can attest to the value of on-site child care in employee retention. Bill Larsen, SPHR, vice president of human resources at Driscoll Health System, says, “We have looked at turnover rates for our people who are using the child care center versus the rest of our employee population, and they are significantly lower for those whose children are in the child care center.”
Self-operated centers align with staff needs
Both hospitals manage and staff their child care centers independently, which provides important benefits, according to Kohanke and Larsen. Not only does that aspect foster a cultural bond across the organizations—with hospital employees teaching and caring for their colleagues’ children—but it allows the hospitals to establish the parameters for the way their centers operate.
That means setting hours that accommodate nurses’ schedules and building in flexibilities to work around the irregularities of a health care provider’s schedule. The Children’s Learning Center at Driscoll Children’s is open from 5:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. each weekday.
And they continue providing care when most centers can’t remain open. “Our child care center plays a key role in our disaster plans—like hurricane planning—when our employees are here in a shelter-in-place situation,” Larsen says. “They provide child care services to employees who are responding in a hurricane so our folks can be here.”
Understand demand, stay committed
Kohanke says Arkansas Children’s is exploring options to expand the Child Enrichment Center, but the heavy demand for on-site child care means any institution planning similar services must first conduct a thorough needs assessment. “That's been our biggest struggle—we are significantly underbuilt, especially in the younger age groups,” says Angela Craig, director of Children’s Learning Center. “There were some space limitations, but we could have perhaps looked at that more closely, and that ties into making sure you know the need.”
Both hospitals’ leaders acknowledge that building and maintaining an on-site child care center is a massive undertaking and comes with its own set of challenges. It’s crucial, according to Kohanke, to have courage in your convictions—and communicate them to your staff. “Our CEO has sent the message that this is important to us, and we're committed to having a top-quality child care center,” Kohanke says. “Really know why you are getting into it, and stay close to that purpose, because that really drives you through some challenging or difficult times.”