With a U.S. national strategy centered on strategic competition and a growing national defense focus on China and Russia, ensuring viable deterrence is a must. There is no greater deterrent than the intercontinental ballistic missiles available to America. This responsibility is shared by only three missile wings across the United States Air Force.

Working at a missile wing responsible for ensuring intercontinental ballistic missiles remain safe, secure, and effective is no small task. It is a special trust and responsibility mission and remains in clear focus 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.

To achieve mission success clearly takes the specialized skillset and dedication of missileers. But there are a host of other professionals working across a series of specialties to ensure we fulfill the important mission of deterrence — from security professionals to communication experts, from logisticians to a range of personnel support services necessary to sustain our force. But ensuring our military members can stay focused on their mission requires more than just the traditional expertise in the workplace. It requires others who support another special trust and responsibility mission.

Some of the unsung heroes of our military communities are the professionals who work tirelessly to provide child care and development.

Child development professionals are making notable contributions to mission success every day. They deserve our daily thanks, appreciation, and added and continual creativity to recruit and retain the very best.

Working at a child development center presents opportunity and valuable experiences to those who serve in this capacity. These services are a clear benefit to military children, while also serving to aid in recruitment and retention. It is hard work, but the benefit to mission and nation is great.

We need more targeted and engaged campaigns to recruit and retain caregivers — whether in child development centers or in home childcare. As military assignments become known, actively recruiting spouses who may seek opportunities for this employment is a must.

Also, a streamlined hiring process is required. We can help to ensure that we attract qualified child care professionals by accelerating the hiring processes to enable action at the local level, rather than relying on the centralized federal web site USAJOBS.gov. We have to streamline and improve the Department of Defense hiring process to keep pace with competition and personal needs. In areas where competition for talent is great and where wage rates are on the rise everywhere, the labor market allows for people to shop at a moment’s notice for opportunity as companies compete for talent. We have to give earlier guarantees of employment, onboard folks quicker, and reduce bureaucracy in this area. Greater authorities need to exist at the local level.

Increased partnering with communities is also a must. Since child development or education is a key component of the military child development experience, another solution is to establish internships with local universities to attract students studying child development and education.

This concept can also be extended to high school students over 16 years of age during summer months. Child caregivers at a military child development center not only ensure the safety of children, but they also promote learning by teaching child development skills.

We need to partner with universities and schools to offer additional education credit to those already serving as caregivers to demonstrate our acknowledgement of the education value, and shared commitment to the development and growth of this occupation as well as to each individual employee. Also, where possible, we need to leverage local Chambers of Commerce to develop campaigns to highlight the benefits of an area and the growing need.

Where possible, DoD also needs to regularly relook pay and consider incentive possibilities, as well as create the maximum flexibility for potential bonuses. Pay at least needs to remain competitive enough to guarantee retention of talent and services. This is especially true when you consider what caregivers deliver in today’s environment to ensure mission needs are met (the education component!), especially in places and states where pre-kindergarten is not a state expectation or requirement.

Implementation of any one of these ideas could bring improvement, but the solution is multi-faceted, and definitely not one size fits all.

Childcare, in particular, is a complex and often deeply personal issue, one for which there will always be a demand. Continuity of care is important to airmen and to mission success. Without adequate childcare, our service members cannot focus on the mission.

Across the DoD, we must continue to look broader at the full spectrum of support services we need to sustain mission success, how they intersect with retention, and if not properly addressed, can lead to mission challenges across the force. We need to continue to elevate ideas and champion change.

The availability of quality on-base childcare is a mission imperative for our military families. In more remote areas, labor shortages are felt more acutely. The Malmstrom Child Development Center and School Age Care has the potential to provide care for 310 families daily. However, due to staffing shortages, hiring process challenges, and job market competition, on-base care is available to only 178 families, and few options are available downtown.

What are the long-term lessons learned we will take from COVID-19 on the importance of child care? It’s too soon to tell, but we’ll likely be looking at a different workplace in the next 5 or 10 years. That could mean more telework, but it will certainly mean changes in approach to child care.

Without adequate or fully staffed child development centers and quality care givers, the ability of any organization to execute its strategy, mission, and deliver expected results can be placed at risk.

Bringing about progress in how we recruit and retain caregivers is an area that we need to accelerate change, or we will lose employees and possibly airmen in the process.

If we don’t get this right or make future improvement, we could face national defense ramifications.

Col. Christopher Karns is the 341st Mission Support Group commander at Malmstrom AFB, Mont.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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