When you think about major energy corporations, child care investments might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But in Billings, Montana, where an ExxonMobil oil refinery employees 270 people and contracts with an additional 100 workers, the firm is an outspoken advocate for additional investments in the child care system. Community Dividend spoke with Dan Carter, who manages government and public affairs for ExxonMobil in Billings, to learn more about the energy giant’s interest in expanding child care access in the Billings community and greater Montana.
Community Dividend: Why is a representative from ExxonMobil talking about child care and early childhood development?
Dan Carter: There are actually a few reasons. One of ExxonMobil’s priorities is community development, and as part of that focus, we look for ways to empower women on a global scale to be more effective with what they do on a daily basis. Early childhood development and access to child care play a huge role in that.
Another part of what we want to do here is raise awareness about why access to quality education is important for children. Education creates future leaders and innovators and gives them the critical thinking skills they need to develop the next awesome thing.
Education creates future leaders and innovators and gives them the critical thinking skills they need to develop the next awesome thing.
Finally, as a large employer, there’s also a pure employment element to this conversation. We want to make sure that current employees don’t have to cite a lack of good child care as a reason for not coming to work. The data show that Montana is 40th in the nation in availability of early child care, so we’ve definitely got work to do.1
CD: What are some of the ways ExxonMobil has invested in this work?
DC: We provide grant funds to early childhood education agencies, including Early Head Start programs that work with teenage mothers to give their babies a good foundational start. We’re also getting involved in conversations, both internally and externally, about why high-quality programs for children are important.
As an employer, we try to help our employees navigate the child care market in the easiest way possible. There are way too many parents that rely on an ad hoc system. You know, they’re working with an aunt or grandmother or neighbor, and if something happens to them, they’re in a bind. We’re trying to elevate the importance of early child care and make sure that the education component is there as well.
CD: You just mentioned employees being in a bind. What does that look like at ExxonMobil’s Billings operation?
DC: People are forced to make hard decisions. Like lots of businesses, our refinery runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That means a lot of people are doing shift work at non-standard hours. It gets even tougher for employees to navigate the child care system when they’ve got more limited access based on their work schedules. Maybe they have to miss or drop a shift, or take a pass on an opportunity for advancement. It’s a tough spot for them to be in.
CD: How do you make your workforce aware of the child care opportunities that do exist in Billings?
DC: We provide families with information, such as reference materials for Montana’s Best Beginnings STARS program, which enables providers to get a star rating so parents can see for themselves what options are available.2 We get a lot of young hires who either have children or are starting families. Those who are curious about it, who are new, coming from somewhere else like Texas, we want to be sure they have information and connections.
CD: You like to talk about early childhood development and child care in the context of innovation. Why is that?
DC: First, if you take a look at the speed at which innovation takes place, it is imperative that we get kids engaged as early as possible in the whole teaching and learning process. It’s amazing how fast technology and innovation happen now. It’s been influential in so many industries. We can spur that innovation by making investments in children that will result in a high-quality workforce. We can place a high value on education for all ages and all students in all places, particularly in math, science, and reading. There’s no better way to do that than by starting early.
It’s amazing how fast technology and innovation happen now. It’s been influential in so many industries. We can spur that innovation by making investments in children that will result in a high-quality workforce.
Second, there’s got to be a way to be more creative in how we provide child care, but it takes resources to be able to do it. It also takes the collective will to show that we value child care as a society. We’d like to be able to have a community and a state in which availability is at the right level so that no workers have to struggle to meet their children’s needs.
CD: What are the barriers preventing Montana’s child care system from meeting those goals?
DC: Resources and sustainability are the obstacles right now. We have to make sure that child care providers have the financial resources they need to meet existing needs or expand. People in the business aren’t paid very well. We need to be able to show that they are valued and doing valuable work. That’s why we provide corporate grants to those programs—either individually or through United Way—because we want them to be sustainable.
CD: How would you recommend that your peers in the corporate world get engaged in child care or early childhood development issues?
DC: First, I’d recommend looking into research by organizations like the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to understand all the data that makes the case for increased investments in early childhood education. Then I’d encourage them to identify those programs in the area that match their mission. Find the ones that align, and support them.
Explore more features related to a community engagement trip that the Minneapolis Fed’s Community Development team took to Billings and the nearby Crow Reservation in early 2019:
What we learned on a community engagement trip to Billings and Billings community data profile
Understanding the CRA performance context