In one of the baby rooms at University City Children’s Center, half a dozen infants are taking naps, drinking out of sippy cups, and trying to figure out how to roll over.
Mioshi Ferrill of St. Louis picks up a little girl with big brown eyes and plastic barrettes in her hair, and coos at her while she takes a bottle. Ferrill, 24, is halfway through her “on the job training” for a new apprentice program run by a local nonprofit, the LUME Institute. After 135 hours of classwork, 480 hours of training, and a year and a half of mentored work, she will be a credentialed provider of early childhood education. But the real payoff comes in moments, like the time she finally got a baby with stranger anxiety to go down for a nap.
“I got her to sleep! And it was that moment I was like, I can do this. I can do this,” Ferrill said.
The U.S. Department of Labor registers job seekers for dozens of apprenticeship programs in St. Louis, from construction to plumbing or sheet metal fabrication. Apprenticeships for childcare are less widely available and often pay less, but LUME officials hope their program can plug a big gap in the workforce.
Before Ferrill joined the program last spring, she ran an informal, at-home daycare. But through the apprenticeship, Ferrill can boost her income, get health insurance and eventually have her kids stay at the same daycare where she works. There’s a waiting list for the program.
“I see myself being here 5, 10 years or more," Ferrill said. "I do want to finish my education, but I’m here to stay.”
That’s something that a lot of daycare providers wish they could hear from their employees, said Ovella “Miss Peaches” Lott, director of the University City center. Nationally, the average wage at a day care is $10.72 an hour, and the nature of the work with young children every day may not be what an applicant expected.
“This is hard work,” Lott said. “Once they are degreed and have an opportunity, sometimes they do leave the early childhood field and they go into elementary education.”
The center that Lott runs employs five of the eight apprentices in St. Louis. The program creates a pipeline of teachers who are trained in a specific approach to early childhood education that focuses on emotional development, she said.
“What happens when the Play-Doh doesn’t mix well? What happens when someone’s having a meltdown because of a situation at home? This is real-time education and it helps them understand it from a different perspective,” Lott said.
The LUME Institute, which developed the apprenticeship curriculum and trained the teachers, is housed upstairs. During its first six months, the program has run into some challenges: eight apprentices remain, but organizers had hoped for 15. Applicants had a hard time passing the qualifying exams at SLATE, the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, LUME CEO Steve Zwolak said.
“Through the recruiting process we probably had 140, 150 people who want to do it," Zwolak said. "What happened was, we would get somebody, and they would have to wait, and they would wash out, and then people who were interested would have to get back to work.”
Coordinators had also hoped to hire apprentices who live in the Clinton-Peabody public housing development, where residents expressed interest in the program. Just two women who live there are in the program, Zwolak said. The group hopes to boost numbers as they recruit a second round of apprentices, who will start coursework in 2017.
Apprentices in LUME’s program are paid on a sliding scale, from $9.50 to $13 an hour as they complete their training. It’s efforts, Zwolak said, are among those that can make child care a more attractive job — and help feed a growing demand.
“We have brain research that says that 90 percent of the brain is developed by age five,” he said. “We have to professionalize the field differently. We have marginalized the field of early childhood.”
Nationally, childcare is one of the lowest-paid apprenticeships registered by the Department of Labor. It’s also one of the few sponsored fields dominated by women.
“With childcare, you have the parents paying the fees, and you can’t ask them to pay $500 a week per child to pay the wages you want to pay your staff,” said Sue Ryan, the director of programs for the Vermont Child Care Industry and Careers Council, which has had an apprenticeship program for child care workers since 2000.
“It’s a continuous discussion about how to raise the wages without it being the parents’ responsibility." Ryan said. "It’s just nobody has figured out how to solve that.”
Earning the child development associate credential without having to attend a community college or university can make a big difference for job seekers.
Jessica Jones, 29, said she started an informal daycare at home after struggling to find high quality childcare when her four kids were small. The two-year apprenticeship through LUME will give her the tools to start one formally, she said — and help her earn college credit towards a Bachelor’s degree.
“I had experience, but I didn’t have the education to back it up,” Jones said. “I will take everything that I learned from this.”
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.