By Don Keelan
The Vermont Legislature convened in January 2018 and adjourned early May. All the legislators went back to their district homes only to come back to Montpelier for a special session on May 23. That evening, most of them went back home, only to have to gather at the state Capitol building again, which they did in June.
Judging from the outcome of five months of meetings, the most important matter facing Vermont was not addressed: How do we keep our young people here and, at the same time, bring in others? And it is wishful thinking to believe that the recently approved Vermont Remote Workers Grant Program and Stay-to-Stay are the panacea?
Collectively, young people and their families are a critical resource needed to fill thousands of open job positions, bring income tax revenue to a hard-pressed state treasury, fill vacant seats on nonprofit and municipal boards and volunteer at our state’s fire and rescue services.
Of course, another assignment for the younger adults would be in response to a May 25 Wall Street Journal piece titled “Oversize Classrooms? Not in Vermont”. The piece noted that the school population in Vermont is now close to 76,000, down from over 104,000 in the late 1990s. It goes on to note that, next to Maine and New Hampshire, Vermont has the highest median age, at 42.7 years.
And what is turning out to be an unsustainable situation is that, according to the WSJ, our state’s per-pupil spending is $17,873 versus a national average of $11,762 — approximately 52 percent greater and only getting worse.
Back in January, in a column on these pages, I asked the legislators if, during their 2018 session, they could just stay focused on one issue, the shrinking Vermont workforce. Five months later, it is quite evident that my request fell on deaf ears. Too many pet projects (bills) seemed to have been more important.
Of course, for some in the Legislature, it was more important that Vermont legalize the possession of marijuana and, by doing so, maybe the state might retain its youth with others to come and reside here. For others, it was to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and provide a family leave bill that would pay for employees to take time off. Such legislation just might attract more people to come and work here – more wishful thinking!
Part of Vermont’s problem in finding employees, as well as retaining those who are here, can be directly related to a lack of workforce housing, programs and entertainment geared toward the younger generation, as well as a diversity of workplace opportunities. A deficit in WiFi and cell phone coverage are also high on the list.
Another problem Vermont has (and I am sure other states as well) is the fact that we have close to 7,000 of our young people now in recovery treatment centers for a variety of addiction reasons. The number is staggering and costly in so many ways. If the programs being dispensed are in any way successful, it will be years before this potential source of labor will be close to being productive.
Gov. Phil Scott has called attention to the crisis of a depleting workforce and its ramifications. He even has it down to the number of young people who leave the state on a daily basis. So why don’t our legislators get the message? How many companies must leave Vermont before Montpelier realizes the crisis we are in?
No one in Montpelier blinked an eye when the long time Bennington manufacturing company, Plasan left Bennington in 2016 for Grand Rapids, Michigan, and with it went over 300 well-paying jobs and an outstanding corporate citizen. Why did it go? The company could not attract skilled workers.
The governor has called the Legislature back into special session to deal with taxes, the budget, and a host of other bills. He should do what he has to in keeping them in session and have them deal with the crisis of Vermont’s shrinking workforce.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.