Dentists, police officers, teachers and nurses — we wouldn’t dream of putting any one of them to work unless they were well- trained. And, after they’ve invested so much to prepare for their careers, we wouldn’t dream of putting them at the bottom of the pay scale. We know that unless we fairly reward these highly trained and educated people for their important work, we’re inviting turnover and other problems.

An important report unveiled this week uses the label “priority professionals” to describe dentists, police officers, teachers and nurses. Our communities cannot function without them. Other priority professionals include doctors, electricians, accountants, IT technicians, veterinarians and more. Our world doesn’t spin without them.

Nor would it spin so well without early childhood teachers and caregivers.

They, too, should be regarded as priority professionals. That’s the recommendation of the report announced earlier this week. Three years in the making and conducted by the Buffet Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, the report reminds Nebraskans of a few facts we already know and a few facts we had better know:

  • Most young moms and dads here are working parents. As a result, more than 75 percent of Nebraska children age 6 and younger are receiving care from someone other than a parent.
  • Through age 8, children experience unparalleled brain development and human growth. It’s during the early years when the quality of care they receive makes the most difference. It either benefits them or sets them back.
  • Low wages and no benefits contribute to high turnover in the childcare workforce. According to the report, the median salary for a teacher in a community-based early childhood setting is $18,706, which is below the poverty level for a family of three. About 27 percent of home-based and 20 percent of center-based teachers are on public assistance.

Across Nebraska, young parents encounter limited and uneven access to affordable high-quality childcare. Eleven counties don’t even have a licensed facility. The lack of childcare has economic consequences. If parents are at home with a child, they bring in one paycheck instead of two. Costs in the future could be higher should the child not receive quality early care to promote mental and physical development.

In response to the report, the Early Childhood Workforce Commission has a number of recommendations. Developing affordable professional training, building on the investments Nebraskans already have made in early care, and reshaping attitudes about the benefits of quality early care are among the commission’s immediate goals.

By 2030, the commission intends that the state fully fund quality early childcare. We don’t know what that cost might be, but we Nebraskans already are paying the price for children who don’t have early brain development. For example, Nebraska is spending $200,000 per year on special ed, and there’s a correlation between third-graders who can’t read and the likelihood they’ll be in prison someday. There are other examples, but you get the point. We can either invest early or pay a price later. Learn more at earlyyearsmatter.org/workforce.