Zulkoski: Grow or wither?

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Zulkoski: Grow or wither?

Tue, 01/15/2019 - 10:04am -- tim
[Modern] Dirt Farmer Wisdom

by Robert Zulkoski, ​Social Entrepreneur Hay fields grow constantly. They sprout in the spring, shoot up and bloom in the summer, are harvested in the fall (at a minimum), and gather strength in winter to do it all over again come spring.

It takes a lot to kill hay. Fire might, but only if it gets to the roots. Extended drought could, but one good downpour and it will pop back. Even too much fertilizer may burn it, but it will still come back, because it is always adapting and growing.

Like hay, each of us is in a constant state of adapting and growing, whether we know it or not. As our lives and careers move from one season to the next, it’s vital we continue to stretch our boundaries, reach for new experiences, and continue to adapt and grow. It often takes more effort to wither up and blow away than to adapt and grow.

“It’s no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

Winston Churchill, 1916

I want to talk about our “talent gap.”

That’s right. We have a talent gap in this country, and many people don’t want to talk about it, let alone do something about it. The definition of a talent gap, also known as a skills gap, is where there are more jobs than qualified people to fill them. It may not be obvious to everyone, but the United States talent gap is real, big, and getting bigger by the moment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the end of 2018 there were approximately 6.3 million unemployed people in the U.S., while at the same time we had over 6.9 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. at the end of November.

What’s behind the gap? There are multiple factors. One important cause is American companies’ increasing need for employees with a wider breadth of knowledge and more sophisticated skills than in times past. While the current generations in elementary school, high school and college are more technologically savvy than ever before, too many students are graduating high school without sufficient knowledge about topics like personal finance and economics in addition to traditional STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. This is a problem we can solve. And by “we,” I mean educators, businesses and policymakers working together. This is not an issue we should rely on our government to solve (federal or state) on their own. In my opinion, the opposite paths set down by each major party lead to the same destination – Failure. This issue is too dire and present to expect that political compromise will suddenly materialize.

Today’s best companies emphasize on-demand, constant and informational learning to improve their employees’ expertise and level of engagement. Yet here in Vermont we don’t have many big companies who can afford such training programs. Individual workers, left to their own devices, struggle with the cost of career training, are confused about what skills to chase, or far too often give up on themselves.

If you have a mid-life crisis while playing hide and seek, do you automatically lose because you can’t find yourself?

With a combination of factors affecting the Vermont economy, doing nothing and expecting to maintain the status quo is not realistic (the “Wither Scenario”). As mentioned in a previous column, The Vermont Futures Project estimates that we need to create ~11,000 net new jobs just to stay even. We’re far from it – last year we celebrated creating ~1,100 net new jobs.

We have many of the right ingredients to drive growth: lifestyle, community, high-speed fiber connectivity in some locations, and importantly, over 42,000 students in our institutions of higher education (approximately 60% from out-of-state, many of whom have chosen to be, and would like to stay, Vermonters).

In this and prior columns I have highlighted issues Vermont faces with recognizing and adapting to change, the fear of change, the cases for collaboration and against parochialism, and our talent gap. Starting with next month’s column, I’m going to stop being so negative and start a series of columns on achievable solutions (the “Grow” scenario).

Mr. Zulkoski is one of the founders of Vermont Works Management Company (www.vermontworks.co), who’s objective is to deliver capital, mentorship, and connectivity to Vermont’s innovation. Vermont Works’ goal is to ensure that Vermont is a full participant in the emerging, technology-enabled “new economy”. Vermont Works sees the dynamic changes sweeping the country and the globe as an achievable opportunity for Vermont to create large numbers of livable wage and sustainable jobs that help retain and attract talent and innovation, while staying true to the “Vermont Brand” and what it represents to the citizens of Vermont. Mr. Zulkoski is also a founding shareholder and Director of Impact Investment of The Conduit (www.theconduit.com), which connects thinkers, leaders, and innovators in social change, business, and the arts to create impact for the greater good.