Workforce Development for the Next Generation: Early Childhood Education

March 27, 2017

Workforce development, long thought to be the purview of community colleges and other vocational programs increasingly extends into early childhood education and elementary school. In fact, many practitioners today believe that workforce development and early childhood education go hand in hand, with many of the skills that bode well for career success developed early in life1. Given that one aspect of the Federal Reserve's dual mandate is full employment, the Community Development and Policy Studies Department has highlighted workforce development as a priority in its 2015-2020 strategic plan.

In addition, the most recent Federal Reserve System Community Development Research Conference, “Strong Foundations: The Economic Futures of Kids and Communities,” explored the link between early childhood interventions and later in life outcomes. During the conference, three sets of concurrent paper sessions – “Early Childhood Development,” “Community Conditions,” and “Education and Workforce” – highlighted the latest research and thinking on the conference topic. Three plenary sessions – “Early Childhood Development and Return on Investment,” “Shaping Economic Futures: The Role of Communities,” and “Skill Development and Workforce Outcomes” convened prominent leaders and speakers. Links to papers and presentations are available on the symposium website.

One of the key themes of the conference is that children from disadvantaged situations face numerous obstacles throughout their lives, but one of the most important is the ability to be ready for kindergarten and early grade learning. Evidence exists that children who are not ready for school face significant struggles ‘catching up,’ and these struggles remain with them throughout their lives.

Chair Janet Yellen’s remarks highlighted the importance of the first five years in a child’s life: “A growing body of economic and education literature has focused on the relative efficiency of addressing workforce development challenges through investments in early childhood development and education compared with interventions later in life.”

The “Early Childhood Development and Return on Investment” panel, which featured leaders from philanthropy, academia, and practice highlighted the urgency of capturing early development opportunities. Aranthan “AJ” Jones II, Chief of staff at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, moderated the panel, “Early Childhood Development and Return on Investment” with Katherine Magnuson, Jack Shonkoff and Arthur Rolnick. Katherine Magnuson, Professor at the School of Social Work University of Wisconsin Madison, talked about how the key to becoming a productive worker is rooted in early childhood because the early years of a child’s life is when 700 synapses are formed per second. Building off of Magnuson’s presentation, Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, stressed that learning from other industries like science, would help improve the impact of early childhood programs. He also highlighted that disadvantaged children need supportive caregivers and talked about how building adult capabilities will improve outcomes for children through a multi-generational approach. Arthur Rolnick, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the Humphrey School of Public Policy, concluded the panel by highlighting the return on inflation adjusted investment of 18 percent for the Perry Project. He explained that initiatives need to be scalable in order to help more disadvantaged children succeed, like the program in Minnesota, The Minnesota Model for Early Childhood Education 2

Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders (VOCEL) is a local example of this approach. It works with very young children and their parents on Chicago’s west side including many of the factors mentioned in the panel. In VOCEL's founding preschool classroom, 88 percent of the children lived in poverty, 66 percent of the children lived in single-parent households, and 66 percent of the children had parents who were unemployed or experienced significant job instability.

VOCEL endeavors to positively impact the low- and moderate-income communities on the west side of Chicago through education, using a combination of the following area of focus depending on the needs of the children and their families:

  • Early leadership skills;
  • Communication and language exposure;
  • Parents programming supported by social workers;
  • Home visiting and individualized support; and
  • Research, evaluation and continual growth.

Two key programs support children in this community: VOCEL Early Learning Center and VOCEL Child Parent Academy.

The VOCEL Early Learning Center currently serves 18 children and is expanding to 44 children in 2018 due to high demand. Enrolled children range in age from 6 weeks to 5 years. It is a full day, year-round program helping support low-income working families.  A new partnership with New Moms, will enable VOCEL to also work with young mothers and their children who are living in poverty or facing homelessness.

The VOCEL early learning center also works with the LENA Foundations, whose research, digital language processors and accompanying systems are used to measure early language environments and track children's communication skills. The data shows the effectiveness of VOCEL’s innovative methods in comparison to preschool environments in LENA Foundation’s current data sample3. For example:

  • Children at VOCEL hear an average of 2,529 words per hour from the teachers and volunteers. (800 – 1100 is typical adult word count in day care / preschool environments in LENA Foundation’s current data sample)
  • Conversational turn count: Children at VOCEL have an average of 99 back-and-forth conversational turns per hour. (15-30 is typical conversational turn count in day care / preschool environments in LENA Foundation’s current data sample)
  • Child vocalization count: Children’s hourly vocalization count is 335 vocalizations (similar to words) per hour. (100-200 is typical conversational turn count in day care / preschool environments in LENA Foundation’s current data sample)

The VOCEL Child Parent Academy hosts parent-child classes that help both grow together. It is an intensive three month program for children from birth to three years old. This program incorporates learning and education throughout the program for both generations. One example is “brain bags” that circulate educational materials between the program and home. Another example is the simple text reminders that the parents receive multiple times a day reminding them of things they can do with their children every day to form positive habits. By building a strong, secure, attachment between parents and child, the child’s cognitive and language skills will start to grow exponentially at a young age.  Additionally, there are parent discussion groups and teacher-child classes, the first to transfer knowledge to parents about parenting practices that will help their child succeed and the later to help children separate from parents in a healthy way. These two occur simultaneously to reduce the amount of time the parent and child need to be at the academy, given the scheduling demands of working parents.

VOCEL also knows that creating a healthy, educated, and well-rounded child takes more than love, education and books.  It also takes a healthy community4. In 2015, VOCEL created a partnership with Good Sports to help their students gain the health benefits that sports offer.

VOCEL is just one example of an organization that is positively impacting the lives of children. With their work and the work of similar organizations, children will develop the skills to succeed in life.


1 In 2014, the Chicago Fed highlighted early childhood education: “Workforce development” for the long run in a ProfitWise News and Views article.

2 Please see Art Rolnick’s TEDxTC, Economic Case for Early Childhood Development, since the paper will not be published until later this year.

3 The LENA Natural Language Study, available online.  

4 To learn more about the Chicago Federal Reserve’s healthy communities initiative, please read the CDPS blog Organizations Focused on Children and Creating a Healthier Chicago.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.


Register to receive email alerts when new issues are published.

Subscription Signup

Your request has been submitted. Please tell us more about yourself.

Subscription More Info
Find Publications By:
Find Publications By:
Publication Date

Find or Reset
Having trouble accessing something on this page? Please send us an email and we will get back to you as quickly as we can.

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, 230 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, Illinois 60604-1413, USA. Tel. (312) 322-5322

Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.

Please review our Privacy Policy | Legal Notices