More Navy Child-Care Centers Are Coming to Drive Down Wait Times, But They're Struggling to Find Staff

An early childhood specialist sings with preschoolers
An early childhood specialist with WHRO public media sings with preschoolers at the Willoughby child development center at Naval Station Norfolk, Dec. 14, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Molly Greendeer)

Amid a growing push by Navy leaders to improve the lives and conditions for sailors, the sea service's installation command is building four new child-care facilities and has plans for 12 more over the next several years.

A spokeswoman for the Navy Installation Command told that the Navy has four centers currently under construction -- one near the base in Kitsap, Washington, another near a base in San Diego, and two others around Norfolk, Virginia. All told, these represent the ability to look after nearly 1,000 more children.

Part of the aim behind the new facilities is to drive down the lengthy wait times that many service members encounter when attempting to enroll their children. However, officials also say that one of the key challenges for them is finding the staff to run the centers, as well.

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Dr. Janet Hooten, the regional program manager for the child-care centers in the Navy's southwest region, told in an interview Tuesday that the wait in her area can be anywhere from 6-18 months for a spot.

Hooten oversees an area that includes all of California and Nevada -- states that are home to some of the Navy's largest concentrations, including the many bases around San Diego and the air base in Fallon, Nevada. Seven construction projects are in her area alone.

One reason for the growing demand, according to Hooten, is the increase in two-income households. Other nationwide trends, such as the ever-rising number of single-parent households may also play a role.

"We would like to meet child-care needs within 30 to 60 days of the date care needed," Hooten explained.

The Navy recently opened two child-care centers at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California that, together, can look after around 450 children.

However, Hooten said she is struggling to fill the centers with staff and retain the employees that she has.

"We're probably around 73% staffed after COVID," Hooten said, referring to the pandemic that closed many public facilities and shook up the U.S. economy. "Child care is in the top 50 most needed jobs, but it's not in the top 50 most desirable.

"It's not just the military; it's outside the fence line ... it's a nationwide shortage of child-care workers," she added.

Hooten says that they are working on giving their employees -- whom she notes only need a high school diploma -- a pay bump from the starting salary of $21 an hour. After six months of training and experience, it rises to $23.69 an hour.

The job also has perks built in to attract military spouses. Hooten explained that they offer discounts and priority child placement for employees as well as transfers so spouses can keep working even after the service member is transferred to a new location.

However, those programs are only Navy to Navy right now. There's no way for someone working at a Navy center to transfer to an Air Force or Army facility.

The result, Hooten says, is that she estimates around a third of her workforce are military spouses.

A 2021 independent survey of military families found that 78% said finding child care was "very difficult or difficult in the past two years."

The efforts to make child care more accessible and predictable go beyond just the immediate concerns of parents. Sailors say that they see the issue as a key factor in their choices to stay in the service or get out, and Navy leaders have been aware of this for years.

In a recently released survey of the force, sailors who said they were either unsure about their career plans or only committed to staying in the Navy for now noted both "difficulty balancing work and their personal life, a desire to focus on the family" as things that affected that decision.

Other branches, such as the Army, have also started to work on beefing up child-care options in an effort to get more recruits or keep soldiers in uniform.

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