Kelly Kiihne is owner of Kelly’s Kids Learning and Development Center in Lincoln, Neb., and is a member of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, an approximately 40-member group of public- and private-sector leaders convened by the Buffett Institute to develop a comprehensive plan for improving the state’s early childhood workforce.
The commission, co-chaired by Dr. Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska ̶ Lincoln, and Dr. Samuel Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute, will meet quarterly for three years. The group’s second official meeting was May 17 in Lincoln.
Kiihne opened her child care center in June 2008. The Lincoln High graduate started college at Nebraska Wesleyan, where she studied nursing. She started working part time at Cedars with young children and loved it.
“My dad said why don’t you just do child care? This is where you want to be,” she said.
Kiihne ended up at Southeast Community College, where she earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education in 2006. Kiihne worked at a couple of child care centers during college and soon decided that she’d like to open her own center. Part of the reason was financial—working for minimum wage or slightly better “just didn’t make economic sense for me in the long term,” she said. “Plus, I was so picky about what I wanted to do with kids, how I wanted their care to be, and I didn’t feel I’d have as much of a voice if I was a preschool teacher or a toddler, infant teacher.”
Kiihne was able to get her dream off the ground with the help of her father, who co-signed for the loan.
“It’s grown so much and I’ve learned so much about the challenges of managing a team of people who genuinely care about children and trying to pay them what they’re worth,” she said. Dealing with increasing expenses has been tough, “because you do have to pass some of the expense along to the parents and that’s hard for them. So it’s a very challenging field, for sure, but it’s something that I love.”
The children make it all worthwhile, she said. “They have an unending amount of love. You’re having a rough day, you’re looking at your budget and things are stressing you out, go talk to the kids, because they’re going to make you feel better and you’re going to say this is why I’m doing all this work.”
Her center has 26 employees, 12 of them full-time. The part-time staff, many of them college students, work anywhere from 10 to 35 hours a week. They work with children ranging from 6 weeks to 5 years of age.
Turnover can be a challenge, she said. “It seems to go in waves. I’ll have some people here for a couple of years and then I’ll lose three people in a couple of months,” Kiihne said. “There are people who move to other centers because they can offer better pay. Often it’s because of benefits. We can’t afford to provide health insurance for our staff. I’m hoping someday that will change.”
Kiihne said she tries to give raises when she can but knows she can’t pay her staff as much as she’d like. “It’s definitely tough. I had a teacher come in who was upset that I wasn’t able to give her a very big raise. She said I could be making the same money at Walmart. I said I understand that you could, but would you be happy there? She’s, like, you’re right, I get it. But at the end of the day, you do have to pay your bills. So it is tough to keep people.”
The ones who are able to make it work usually are in a relationship with someone who is the breadwinner of the family, she said.
“I have a handful of single moms, they’re working full time, they have kids, they have food stamps, they have Title XX, they have assistance as well from the state. That’s not unique to my center. That’s a dynamic that people don’t think of, the parents that are paying for child care probably don’t realize the income that the teachers are making here. Because I can almost guarantee you that they’re making more, possibly than me.
“You don’t go into this field thinking that you are going to make a lot of money. But that’s the same thing to be said of public school teachers. It’s definitely a love of the field and a love of children.”
Finding replacements can be tough. “In the last couple of years, myself and other directors have been saying where have all the child care teachers been going? We’re fighting over the good staff, because Nebraska’s unemployment rate has been extremely low, which is good, but bad when you’re hiring. There just aren’t a lot of people going into this field.”
Kiihne said she doesn’t know how to pay child care staff more without passing the cost onto already-overburdened parents.
“I honestly don’t have a solution for that,” she said. “I’m sure if you talked to other directors, they’d say the same thing.”
Kiihne said she’s hopeful that the commission’s work will lead to greater public awareness of the importance of early care and education and respect for the child care field.
“I think the attitude of the public is starting to change. When I started in child care, people would say oh, you work in child care? What is that, like babysitting? Obviously, the babysitter term, for anyone working in child care, that’s like a slap in the face.
“I’d like to see just a better community sense of respect for child care, that what we’re doing really does matter in the long run.”
“I have never done anything like this before, so I really don’t know what to expect out of this. I’m probably the youngest one at the table, I don’t have a master’s degree, so it’s a little intimidating for someone like me, but if you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you. I want to be an advocate for the kids and for my industry. Because this is my job. My name’s on the building. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be doing this for my life.”