by Rob Roper
Governor Peter Shumlin launched on Wednesday what he is calling his “Bring it Back to Vermont” jobs initiative. The idea is to place a new focus on connecting employers with job openings with potential employees. The hope is, at least in part, to get young Vermonters who have left the state to come home again, and to keep those that have not left from doing so.
Shumlin’s rationale: “Vermont’s economy is heading in the right direction, with the fourth lowest unemployment in the nation. This is the perfect time to entice former Vermonters back to their home state and remind employers that Vermont’s quality of life makes it an ideal place to do business.”
The first major problem with that argument is that, although Vermont does have the fourth lowest unemployment number in the nation, that number is deeply flawed. According to the Public Assets Institute (not exactly a right wing megaphone), “The official unemployment rate remained unchanged because the number of unemployed workers declined along with the overall labor force,” noting also that, “Both the labor force and the number of Vermonters working decreased for the third consecutive month in May,” and “Vermont’s ‘real’ unemployment rate is about double its official rate.”
Another troublesome aspect of the plan, which will unfold with more details in a few weeks, is the notion that “quality of life” is the top argument proffered for settling in Vermont. Although we do have a wonderful outdoor environment to use as a selling point, hiking trails and ski mountains do not have anything to do with making anywhere and “ideal place to do business.” An ideal place to live, sure. But it has nothing to do with the ability to do business. And, it must be pointed out that the quality of life one gains by keeping more of what one earns really isn’t part of Shumlin’s equation, and that’s a problem for a lot of people.
As such, Shumlin’s proposal sounds an awful lot like former Democrat Speaker of the House and gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington’s jobs program, “Why Vermont Works.” Symington rejected the ideas of attracting employers and employees with favorable tax rates, reasonable regulatory reform, etc. All we had to do, according to her logic, is just send folks pretty pictures of the Green Mountains and they’d flock to us pushing wheelbarrows full of investment capital before them. “Why Vermont Works” worked about as well as Symington’s campaign for governor (which is to say it didn’t).
There are jobs to be had in Vermont. As the governor highlighted in his press conference, a recent survey of Vermont businesses indicated that, “of the 594 firms participating, 52 percent have current openings for 2,148 employees.” But, again, this is not a new revelation. The problem isn’t that the jobs don’t exist, or that Vermont workers don’t know about them. The problem is that our education system is not producing young citizens with the skills necessary to fill those jobs.
Speaking back in March, Shumlin’s own Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Miller said, “Our companies have major hiring challenges finding workers with the skills needed to help companies compete globally. I talk to employers with open positions every day, and I also talk to Vermonters looking for work every day. The skills mismatch is significant and something we must address…”
The fact of the matter is if we want to attract employers back to Vermont, our government needs to reform our economic environment to the point that it is attractive to investors and job creators. We need to reform our tax system, our education system, our regulatory environment, and our healthcare system in ways that are attractive to capital. To try to sell Vermont as a great place to do business without first putting those reforms into place will actually do more harm than good. As advertising legend Bill Bernbach said, “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”