Help Wanted: Child Care Providers

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Help Wanted: Child Care Providers

Lack of Quality Centers Forces Mothers to Quit the Work Force

When she hung up her white gown five years ago, Dr. Kim was literally at her wits' end. A pediatrics specialist at a major children's hospital in Seoul, Dr. Kim, then in her early 30s, had a pre-schooler and a one-year-old at home. Juggling the demands of a neo-natal intensive care unit and the needs of two young children was just too much to handle, she recalls. Dr. Kim now occasionally works as a stand-in at private clinics when the regular doctors are away.

With her first child, she found a woman in her neighborhood to take care of the baby while she was at work. When the caretaker quit suddenly, Dr. Kim hired a live-in nanny. "That way, I did not have to nervously watch the clock every morning, waiting for the nanny so I could get to work on time," she said.

Things were fine until she had her second child. Dissatisfied with the nanny, she turned to her only other solution, becoming a stay-at-home mom. "With the kind of hours I was working at the hospital, I could not find a child care center where I could send the child," she said.

Dr. Kim is a prime example of how many women choose to leave the work force because of the scarcity of quality child care in Korea. Although no numbers are available on women who leave their jobs to take care of young children, Korea has a higher percentage of women leaving the work force than any other country, said Kim Seung-kwon, director of the Family Policy Team at the Korea Institute for Health and Welfare Affairs, who wrote "Analysis of Childcare Services for Young Children and Policy Formulation" published by the institute.

According to this government-commissioned study, the employment rate of women with children 5 years old and younger stood at 27.3 percent last year, dramatically lower than the employment rate of married women, which was 77.9 percent. For women with children 2 years old and younger, the employment rate was a mere 20.5 percent.

In fact, Korean women's economic participation rate by age is characterized by a pattern of two peaks. Among those in the 20-24 age group, it reached 60.8 percent before dipping to a low of 48.1 percent for the 30-34 age group in 1999, for example. Those in the 40-44 age group accounted for the next peak at 63.1 percent, according to the 2000 Statistical Yearbook on Women published by the Korean Women's Development Institute.

In families where mothers choose to stay working after the birth of the children, it is often a daily high-wire act. "When I returned to work after maternity leave, I left my daughter with my mother. During the week, we would drop by at my mother's house to spend time with my child after work, bringing her home over the weekend,"said Noh Eun-young, 35, who is currently on a one-year temporary leave from the Bank of Korea to take care of her 10-month-old son. Shuttling continued until her daughter reached 4 and came to live with the parents. "Although we were able to put her in child care when she was 27 months old - she had been on a waiting list since her birth - we still had to rely on my mother to pick her up in the afternoon because I would still be at work at that hour," she said.

This is typical of the arrangement worked out by many families with working mothers. In households with children 2 years old and younger where both parents worked outside the home, a majority rely on other family members for child care, Dr. Kim Seung-kwon's study found. Even in the 3-5 age group for whom preschools are available, 20.5 percent still relied on family members. "Only one percent left their children, 2 years old or younger, in the care of nannies or other caretakers," Dr. Kim noted.

The same study reported that 53 percent, or 927 of the 1,728 married women with children 2 years old and younger surveyed, responded that they would send their children to child care facilities if safe and reliable ones were available. That translates into potential demand for child care for about 1.1 million children in that age group. Compare that figure to the 120,000 children in the same age group currently in child care facilities, and the disparity becomes obvious.

"Changing Patterns in Female Employment Structure and Future Policy Direction" by Kim Tea-hong was published by the Korean Women's Development Institute last year. It pointed out that "Unless better child care policies are in place and dramatic changes occur in how housework is divided between partners, transforming the twin peak pattern in women's rate of economic participation to a plateau would be very difficult." Better quality child care is crucial, according to Dr. Kim Tae-hong, because although the birth rate continues to decline, leading to an overall decline in the number of married women with children under 6 years old, the degree to which having young children hinders married women's economic activity has increased greatly, mainly because they tend to pay lavish attention to the ones they have.

Dr. Kim Seung-kwon also sees better-quality child care facilities as key to retaining women in the work force. "Improvement in the environment, better teacher-to-children ratio and more quality programs at child care facilities are sorely needed," he said. Many mothers are dissatisfied by the teacher-to-children ratio set by the government. "They know experientially that the current ratio of one teacher to five children in the 0-2 year old group and the 1:15 ratio in the 3-5 year old group does not guarantee quality care," he explained. "If high quality child care services for 0-5 year-olds were available, the demand for such services could double," he predicted.

There are over 19,000 child care facilities throughout the country, a number that could meet the current need, according to some in the frontline of child care business. "It's not the number of facilities that are the problem, but the poor quality," commented Hyun Yoon-kyung, general manager at Samsung Welfare Foundation, which operates 33 child care centers around the country. The tendency is for parents to flock to centers that have a good reputation while other facilities end up operating at less than full capacity, she explained.

The on-site child care center at Korean Broadcasting System, which is licensed to provide care for 35 children aged 2-6, is a good illustration of this tendency. The center currently has 31 children enrolled and has a waiting list with twice that many names. "Last year we had about 60 children on the waiting list and we get calls from workers in other broadcasting companies in the area who ask if they can enroll their children here," said Kim Hyun-ja, director of the KBS Childrens Home. Employees of the broadcasting company pay 150,000 won ($110) a month for each child in the program that is subsidized by the company.

Working mothers prefer such on-site facilities because of convenience, longer hours and subsidized fees. However, there are very few on-site child care centers: There were only 203 taking care of some 7,600 children in September 2000.

Remember that Ms. Noh had to wait 27 months to get her first child placed at a child care center? She put her son's name on the waiting list at the same center but does not know when he will be admitted. In the meantime, she is looking for a nanny who will come to her house as she plans to return to work in April, a task which is proving to be very difficult. "My mother is now 74 years old. She can't possibly take care of two grandchildren," she said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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