Military Must Focus on Efforts to Keep Its Child Care Employees to Shorten Waitlists, Watchdog Says

Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Family Child Care provider
Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Family Child Care provider completes a puzzle with children in her home on March 31, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jason Treffry)

To help cope with increasing turnover rates of child care workers, the Defense Department must do a better job of tracking the effectiveness of employee retention efforts and start offering workers paid leave and bonuses, according to a new watchdog report.

A Government Accountability Office report released earlier this week made the recommendations as part of a broader effort to improve the availability of military child care, which many service members struggle to obtain and afford. There were an estimated 12,000 children awaiting entry to military child care programs last year, according to a Senate Armed Services hearing this month.

While the military services continuously focus on recruiting new employees, the report found that they don't measure the effectiveness of any efforts to actually retain their child care workers. "By developing metrics to track the results of their retention efforts, the military services can identify which are most effective at retaining child care workers," said the report.

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Continuously recruiting new employees to fill gaps comes at the sacrifice of employee retention, made worse by burdensome onboarding processes, stressful work environments, and limited opportunities for career progression.

The report evaluated eight DoD installations for their child care capabilities, all selected specifically because of lengthy child care waitlists.

In 2022, turnover within the DoD child care sector ranged from 34% at Marine Corps child care facilities to 50% turnover within Army facilities, the report said.

Aside from widespread staffing and availability issues, military child care has come under fire recently for abuse -- a recent investigation revealed misconduct within DoD child care centers, enabled largely by a lack of transparency between facilities and military parents. Military day cares are not required to abide by state child care laws, making accountability for abuse difficult.

The DoD is the largest employer-sponsored child care system in the U.S., responsible for more than 160,000 military children. Child care worker staffing shortfalls -- to the tune of around 6,200 vacancies in 2022 -- have kept many military families on long waitlists for base child care centers, the report noted.

Hourly wages for DoD child care workers increased in 2023, to between $17.39 and $23.14, depending on location, the report said. Military child care employees cannot make more than $29.06 per hour, though workers interviewed for the watchdog report noted that the military's pay rate, and benefits like health insurance, make the job more attractive than civilian child care job opportunities.

Some military parents, especially junior enlisted, can't afford high-quality civilian child care options outside of the DoD. The cost of obtaining civilian-provided child care has also taken a toll on military spouse employment, since the price drives many parents to stay home instead of entering the workforce.

Meanwhile, the child care industry is "on the brink" of collapse throughout the U.S., as child care providers struggle to compete with rising wages in other industries that attract employees elsewhere, according to The New York Times.

Increased numbers of children with behavioral problems have also contributed to difficulty retaining employees, the report noted.

-- Kelsey Baker is a graduate student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and a former active-duty Marine. Reach her on X at @KelsBBaker or

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