Start Early. Start well.

August 14, 2023

Our Economy Doesn't Work Without the Early Childhood Workforce, Thriving Children Speaker Says

By Erin Duffy 

There are more than 900,000 child care workers across the United States. Think of the impact they have on the millions of young children and families they serve.  

Trusted early educators allow parents to work. They help businesses run at full speed. As small business owners, they invest their dollars right back into their communities.  

And, Buffett Early Childhood Institute Executive Director Walter Gilliam argues, the early childhood workforce just might be the linchpin to our country’s economic recovery post-pandemic.  

“We need to think of this workforce as simultaneously human beings of value and a key infrastructure, like roads, distribution centers, or bridges,” Gilliam said. 

Gilliam will share the value of the early childhood workforce during his keynote address at the Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference on Sept. 19 in Kearney, Nebraska. Additional speakers include Tabatha Rosproy, the first preschool teacher to be named a National Teacher of the Year, who will share her experiences running a child care program inside a senior care facility. 

The free Thriving Children event focuses on the connections between early childhood education and community and economic vitality. The conference attracts national, state, and local leaders in fields like business, education, health care, and economic development who want to build a better early childhood system. Learn more about the conference and register here.  

Early childhood educators are sometimes called “the workforce behind the workforce.” No care, no flourishing economy.  

“This is a workforce that’s highly localized,” Gilliam said. “It doesn’t outsource to other places. It’s high-touch. And it needs to be local to where the need is.” 

Walter Gilliam, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood InstituteWalter Gilliam
Child care “cannot show up to your doorstep by Amazon,” he said. “It needs to be produced and delivered right where the need is … Any support that’s given to this particular workforce will create tax dividends locally, and it will spur local growth.” 

Gilliam became the new leader of the Buffett Institute in March 2023. He is a national expert in early childhood development and education known for his work on preschool expulsion and suspension, early childhood mental health consultation, and race and gender bias in early childhood settings. 

Gilliam came to the Institute from Yale University, where he was a professor of child psychiatry and psychology and director of Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy.  

A Kentucky native, he likes to say he’s a “little more y’all than Yale.”  

He began his career in education as a music teacher and pivoted to child psychology after dual tragedies at the small K–12 school where he and his wife taught: two children died of suicide, leaving the small community shaken.  

By that point, “I wasn’t teaching much music,” he said. “I was mostly a grief counselor who didn’t know what he was doing.” 

He returned to graduate school to study school psychology and built expertise in early childhood education and development.  

As a new Nebraskan, Gilliam said he’s been struck by the state’s neighborliness and its solutions-oriented philanthropic community.  

“There is a genuine, pervasive concern for others here,” he said.  

In June, he had an a-ha moment at one of Omaha’s celebrated traditions: the College World Series. He happened to sit near an early educator from Grand Island during the game, and they got to talking between innings.  

She gushed about her job helping babies and toddlers learn about the big world around them, and a crucial fact emerged: she cared for the children of seven public school teachers.  

“She is the teacher who makes seven other teachers possible,” Gilliam said. “Without her, I don’t know what those seven other teachers would do.” 

This is the impact—the ripple effect—of early childhood care and education.  

Gilliam knows that in a geographically sprawling state like Nebraska, there will be no one-size-fits-all model of child care. What works in urban Omaha might not work in rural Cherry County, which spans 6,000 square miles—an area larger than the state of Connecticut, Gilliam’s previous home. 

These are conversations that will require the voices of many.  

“We need to hear from our young families,” he said. “And we need to hear from our young people who might be contemplating starting a family or thinking about not having a family because they don’t have any support.” 

And we need to listen to child care providers who too often make poverty wages, who struggled to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic, whose demanding job leaves them tired, stressed, and on the brink of leaving an already understaffed field.   

These are the kinds of conversations that happen at the Thriving Children conference. These are the kinds of conversations happening all over Nebraska as parents, educators, community leaders, and employers come together to improve child care offerings.  

“This is a state that cares about its children,” Gilliam said.  

Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.      
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