by Robert Letovsky
If you are currently the parent of a school-age or college-age child, chances are that by 2030 he/she will be living out of state. Vermont is the second oldest state in the country and our population has hardly grown during the past ten years. In 2000, there were 148,000 Vermonters under the age of 18, and 78,000 over the age of 65. By 2030, there will 139,000 Vermonters under 18, while the number of over-65’s is expected to double, to 174,000. The greying of the population is a regional trend, but it’s especially visible in Vermont, and it’s time to ask what it means for our state’s future economic sustainability.
Vermont is a leader in terms of attracting college-age students from out of state, but most don’t stay here upon graduation. We have one of the nation’s highest rates of out-migration of 22-29 year old college-educated residents. This exodus of young educated residents has created another ominous trend as we look to 2030 because most advanced degree holders in Vermont today are already over age 45.
It’s not surprising that many out of-state college students return home, at least initially after graduation. The question is: How can we keep enough of them to have the kind of workforce Vermont will need in 2030? A 2010 survey of graduating seniors from six Vermont colleges and universities found that only 37 per cent were “definitely” planning to stay here, with most citing family ties as their main reason. Among the 37per cent who said they were “definitely” planning to leave, almost 60per cent cited “limited job opportunities” as their main reason. The remaining 26per cent of responding seniors were unsure of their plans.
The reasons why young people stay in Vermont or leave are complex, but let’s not waste time debating the obvious. It is extremely difficult for a young graduate to start a career here. Jobs paying the kind of salaries that would allow a young person to afford Vermont housing costs plus living expenses while carrying $300-$500 per month of college debt are few and far between.
Unless we can figure out how to keep young people in Vermont, we face a fiscal disaster in the next 20 years. Our limited tax base is already painfully obvious in several areas of state programming (noticed many Troopers on the highways of late?) Declining public school enrollments are driving per student costs to the point where we are 40 per cent above the national average. Meanwhile, Vermont’s almost $3 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for retired public servants and teachers will have to be paid from a tax base whose future is unclear at best.
Why do these conditions exist in Vermont? An honest assessment must confront the connection between the relative lack of good jobs for young adults and Vermont’s image as a place that’s perceived as hostile to economic growth. Do all those surveys consistently ranking Vermont as among the worst places to do business have any impact on our ability to attract investment? We’re also going to have to assess the connection between our ranking as a high tax state, the perception of our regulatory environment, and Vermont’s relative inability to attract the kind of jobs needed to retain young educated workers. A recent study by Moody’s based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data forecasts that Vermont will be one of the bottom ten states for job creation per capita between now and 2016. Are job creators telling us what they think of Vermont by staying away? What does this collective judgment mean for Vermont’s ability to have the tax base needed to fund vital services in 2030, when our medical costs and pension obligations will be even larger?
Of course, if you’re an aging boomer with a good job, this place is great: un-crowded, safe, and filled with amazing outdoor opportunities. By 2030, however, as our tax base continues to shrink, as more of us retire, as the bills come due, and as key state services have to be cut back or eliminated, will it be too late to confront and resolve these tough questions?
Robert Letovsky is a candidate for Chittenden County Senator.