By Dustin Degree, Executive Director of the State Workforce Development Board and a Special Assistant to Governor Phil Scott
The Legislature’s Next Generation Commission was asked to “develop a plan to encourage Vermonters to live and work in Vermont.” Six months later, it reported that “Vermont faces critical demographic shifts” and we must “implement bold strategies immediately if it is to retain its economic vitality…” It noted finding skilled workers to fill available jobs will become more difficult for employers, hurting our economy and our ability to support vital public services and invest in our priorities.
That was 2006.At the time, our labor force was still growing, as it had for the prior three decades. Yet there were clear signs that the graying of Vermont and a declining birth rate would pose serious economic threats to our state.
Three years later, in April of 2009, the number of Vermonters in our labor force peaked. The decline the Commission predicted began, and the trend appears to be continuing.
Today, this trend manifests in the persistent decline in the number of kids in our schools - building, each year, on losses that already total nearly 30,000 since 1997.We see it when businesses are unable to expand because there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill well-paying jobs.
We see it as communities’ populations drop and we struggle to maintain vibrancy in the downtowns and village centers beyond the Champlain Valley.
As a “working age” Vermonter—who served in the House, the Senate, and two administrations during this period—I understand there are competing priorities and headline-grabbing issues that can distract from the need to grow our population, increase our labor force, and provide paths to good jobs.
But today, the need for more workers and taxpayers threatens our economic foundation and our ability to sustain investments in priorities like fighting addiction, repairing infrastructure, and protecting natural resources.
That’s why Governor Scott asked all in state government to make growing Vermont’s workforce our focus.
We all recognize that some Vermonters need education or training to secure meaningful employment. So the Governor has proposed increasing funds for non-degree training programs and adult technical education that will help them acquire necessary skills.
He also proposed increasing our higher education investment to prevent a tuition increase this year, and to make an associate degree program available to more students through local technical education centers.
The high cost of childcare also forces some Vermonters out of the workforce. And we know that early education reduces human services costs and improves kids’ future success. The Governor, alongside many others, has advocated for a steady increase in early care and learning funding, including $5 million over the last two years. This year, he recommended investing an additional $7 million. Increasing access and affordability of early care and learning unlocks an untapped portion of the workforce and prepares our kids for success—it’s a win-win.
Finally, we simply need more people living and working in Vermont—or, as the Governor says, “we don’t need more taxes, we need more tax payers.” That’s why the administration is again offering a plan to recruit more working families to Vermont.
Whether they grew up here, came for college and left or they fell in love with it during a visit - don’t be fooled by those saying they don’t exist.
Last year, the Legislature proposed reimbursing relocation costs for remote workers who move here. Nearly 3,000 people responded, without a media campaign or marketing blitz—just word of mouth. And it became national news because incentives really work.
We can’t ignore this problem any longer. Every Vermonter withdrawing from the labor force causes each of us to pay little more to cover the cost of state government, schools, public safety, roads and bridges – every public investment.
It makes it harder to afford the things we care about. Budgeting decisions will become more difficult as costs rise, and our economy will continue to consolidate into the Burlington area.
But we can break this cycle if we grow our workforce.
In 2006, the Next Generation Commission told the Legislature it was “…crucial that Vermont simultaneously implement strategies to expand its skilled workforce, to attract and retain businesses, and to encourage skilled workers to move to the state.”
We can do this and it’s time to act.