Commentary: Expanding the labor force is essential

by Sarah Buxton and Dustin Degree In April 2009, there were 361,200 people in Vermont’s labor force – an all-time high. Today we have 15,540 fewer workers. If nothing changes, in about 7 years there could be one working Vermonter for each person who is not in the labor force. If you exclude the Burlington area, we’re about four years away from this reality.

The impact of this shortage now extends far beyond individual businesses, causing a ripple effect on Vermont’s economy – reducing productivity and squeezing the state’s ability to make investments that are important to Vermonters. Why? Because workers buy homes, put kids in our schools, spend money at local businesses and help increase revenue to invest in our communities.

The fact is, there are hundreds of good paying jobs available in Vermont. We have a shortage of nurses, plumbers, electricians, manufacturing technicians, construction workers and other skilled professionals. Every day, we hear from employers about their workforce needs.

As Governor Scott has rightly pointed out, the public programs we value, and new investments we want to make, rely on rebuilding our labor force. We must do a better job helping Vermonters enter and stay in the workforce. Supporting employers – particularly our small businesses – in attracting and retaining workers is essential to growing the economy and making Vermont more affordable.

This fall, the Governor asked us to work with public and private partners to develop a plan to increase the labor force.

Here are a few highlights:

To train jobseekers for work that is available now, we proposed to increase our investment in adult Career and Technical Education (CTE). In coordination with the Community College of Vermont, Vermont Technical College and local employers, we would provide specialized training to Vermonters to help put them in jobs available right now.

To help more high school and college graduates get jobs right after graduation, the Department of Labor is better connecting graduates with employment opportunities, and the Agency of Education is supporting efforts to expand employment-based internships for high school students.

We are also working to ensure older workers have options when they begin to consider retirement. That’s why the Governor called for phasing-in the elimination of the state income tax on Social Security retirement benefits for low and middle-income Vermonters and has proposed expanding employment opportunities for those who want to remain in the workforce, but at a different pace.

For working families, access to affordable child care can be a barrier to reentering the workforce. So, in addition to the Governor’s investment in childcare subsidies, he is devoting money from the Vermont Training Program to increase the number – and availability - of certified child care providers.

We’re also working to help people in recovery re-enter the workforce, support our National Guard, recruit and employ more veterans.

Finally, to grow our labor force, population and, ultimately, our tax base, we also need to recruit working-age families to Vermont.

We know there are people who want to move to Vermont, who share our values and want to live in the healthiest and safest state in the nation. We proposed using proven technology to connect with individuals and families outside our borders. We’ll integrate these efforts with valuable relocation services, including job placement, and housing, education and recreation information.

These are just a few of the initiatives from the Governor’s plan and without question, there’s more to do.

But here’s the bottom line: The need is real, and we must act to protect public investments we value and expand the economy – we cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer.

Sarah Buxton is Director of Workforce Policy & Performance and a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives. Dustin Degree serves as Special Assistant to the Governor and Director of the Workforce Expansion and a former Republican State Senator. Together they lead Governor Scott’s Interagency Workforce Expansion Team.