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Commentary: Revitalizing the workforce in an aging state

April 24, 2018

Times Argus

By CHELSEA CATHERINE; Moving back to Vermont after 10 years away was difficult, especially when it came to finding a job. Having lived in metropolitan areas for the majority of my working life, I was used to a variety of job options, and being hired or receiving callbacks for most vacancies I applied to.

Vermont was different. I searched in Montpelier and Burlington, trying to find anything that might match the skills I’d gained in the past few years. There were fewer job openings, and many were for skill sets I lacked.
 
At first, I took it personally. It didn’t feel like there was space for me in this state — a millennial with two degrees, a year of national service and glowing recommendations. But my experience is not uncommon for millennials in this state. Recently, the Department of Labor found that rather than gaining 2,700 jobs in 2017 as was predicted, the state added only 900 jobs. That brought Vermont’s growth rate down to 0.3 percent, the lowest it’s been since the recession in 2010.
 
Along with a slow growth rate, Vermont struggles with a rapidly aging and declining population. Vermont’s median age is 42.7. The median American is 38. The variance happened recently — in 2000, Vermonters were only two years older than the average American. Not including those attending college in Vermont, there are significantly less millennials in this state than elsewhere.
 
This is one of the factors influencing Vermont’s hiring crisis. Another is the skills gap, which refers to the skills workers have and those needed by employers. In Vermont, the top three sectors for employment are health and social services, retail, and food hospitality. Of these, 90-95 percent of employers have less than fifty employees.
 
Smaller businesses in Vermont often struggle to find and keep employees, yet this is where the majority of potential job openings lie. What can be done to help? The House already has several workforce development bills aimed at not only increasing the workforce, but building its skills:
 
—        H.852, which would modernize the Vermont workforce development system,
—        H.811, which focuses on implementing multiple workforce development and recruitment strategies, and
—       H.833, which would make funding available for small businesses through the Vermont Training Program.
 
Additionally, the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing recently announced their “Stay-to-Stay” initiative which was designed to convince family aged (read: Gen X and millennials) to relocate to Vermont. But getting people here isn’t necessarily going to convince them to stay, nor is it going to enable them to enter the workforce or find meaningful employment.
 
In order to revitalize the workforce and provide small businesses with the employees they seek, several things are needed.
 
1.      Small businesses need access to new technologies. Maybe an incentive could be provided by the state to update business features? Updated technology will draw on the skills of young professionals.
 
2.      More focus needs to be given on having Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials work side by side to exchange knowledge and skills. All three generations have unique solutions and different perspectives to provide. Their cooperation is crucial to our state’s survival.
 
3.      Additional workforce development opportunities need to be provided to small businesses and nonprofits so young professionals have the opportunity to advance in the workplace and can engage with their work in a meaningful way.
 
4.      Affordable, accessible childcare is needed so families (women especially) can relocate and join the workforce.
 
5.      Licensing fees and confusion over state regulations are deterrents for many young people looking to move here and begin their own small businesses. Clarity on what’s expected of both new and existing businesses is needed, perhaps through a dedicated contact person who could assist with questions.
 
I was lucky to find a position that utilized some of the skills I learned, but it took me a month to find it. During this time, I had a part-time position to sustain me, but many my age are not that lucky. These are the young working people that will move away from Vermont and seek employment in more metropolitan areas where jobs are more readily available.
 
I have great hope in this state’s future. As a native Vermonter, I take pride in the hardworking nature of those living here. I have faith that our leaders and officials will recognize the ongoing problems with our workforce and will work to help us correct them.



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