Jackson Lab is building its own child care center in the hopes of attracting and retaining staff.
At a ceremony on Tuesday, Jackson Laboratory broke ground on a new child care center on its Bar Harbor campus. Once it's built, the Downeast Family YMCA will staff and run the facility. Credit: Nicole Ogrysko / Maine Public

The Jackson Laboratory broke ground this week on a new child care center on its Bar Harbor campus.

A lack of affordable child care — and housing — are the two biggest barriers to recruiting and retaining staff.

And the company is hopeful that an on-site child care facility will go a long way toward retaining employees like Beth Dumont, who grew up in central Maine and dreamed of becoming a scientist.

Years ago Dumont put her name on several wait lists for child care centers soon after she learned she was pregnant with her first child. It wasn’t until a few days after her son was born that she found out that she had secured a spot.

“There’s an important caveat that gets left off that line of encouragement that we always feed to children,” Dumont, an assistant professor at Jackson Lab, said Tuesday at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new child care center. “And that is you can be whatever you want to be, so long as you have access to child care, if you are a parent.”

She and her husband, also a Jackson Lab employee, now have three children.

Unlike Dumont, other parents in the region and across Maine haven’t been so lucky. Jackson Laboratory says it made offers of employment to 369 people in Maine last year. Seventy people turned them down.

“These are people who got full offers and were ready to accept,” said Katy Longley, chief operating officer at Jackson Laboratory. “And there was a burden either with child care or housing.”

Jackson Lab first partnered with the Downeast Family YMCA a few years ago, and helped it renovate a child care center in Ellsworth. The partnership worked so well, Longley said, that the two organizations are working together to open a brand new facility next November.

The newly built center on the laboratory’s campus will have full-time spots for about 53 children. Jackson Lab employees will have the first priority. Any remaining spots will be opened up to the rest of the Bar Harbor community, where the need for child care is also dire.

Peter Farragher, CEO of Downeast Family YMCA, said 143 people are on his wait list.

“It’s enormous. If we can get the staff we can really make a big dent in that number,” he said. “What they’re doing here with the lab is a step in the right direction.”

The new center on the Jackson Lab campus will have three classrooms, one for infants, one for toddlers and another for preschool age children.

Todd Landry, the director of the state’s Office of Child and Family Services, sees the potential for more similar partnerships — like the one between Jackson Lab and the local YMCA — to develop across Maine.

“While not every Maine business is going to be able to support early-care and education in this same way, we hope that the example set by Jackson Laboratory will inspire other companies to consider what they can do to support efforts to increase access to high quality early-care and education,” he said.

Staffing the child care center on the Jackson Lab campus is a concern, Farragher acknowledged.

Before the pandemic, the Downeast Family YMCA served 85 children, but because of staffing shortages, that number is down to 62. Farragher said he’s hopeful those challenges will ease by the time the new facility opens next fall.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.