Almost a year in development, reveals recommendations by 75 leaders around the state for future economic growth/resilience
Vermont Business Magazine At a time when Vermonters are surveying the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 crisis, UVM’s Office of Engagement and Center for Rural Studies have released the Vermont Economic Development Roundtables Report Amplifying Vermont’s Economic Resilience. The report identifies current and future challenges to the Vermont economy, and makes recommendations to ensure a strong and sustained recovery. Workforce pay and availability is a constant theme. And in every roundtable, the issue of race, equity, inclusion, and belonging arose as a key element of community economic development in Vermont.
The report comes out of discussions with about impediments to economic resilience and potential solutions. A total of eight roundtable sessions were held beginning late in the winter of 2021 with Vermonters representing diverse sectors from across the state including professionals in workforce development, public and private finance, arts and culture, government, social services, or education and research.
“The findings from these conversations will not surprise those who care deeply about the health and well-being of Vermonters,” the report says. A consensus around what economic resilience looks like for our state emerged: “one that sees our state’s private and nonprofit sectors thriving, our poorest residents elevated to higher qualities of life, full employment, few job vacancies, affordable housing, healthcare and childcare for all, a welcoming and inclusive society where newcomers are able to make a living and a life here in the Green Mountain State.”
The concept for the roundtables was developed by the Vermont Futures Project, an initiative of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The research questions used to frame and implement the Economic Development Roundtables centered on two goals: 1) defining what successful community economic development looks like for our state and 2) surfacing the major challenges and opportunities to help Vermont’s rural economy compete in a post-pandemic world.
“In 2020 the Vermont Futures Project evaluated and assessed the relevancy of our current data points and targets in light of the economic disruptions presented by Covid-19,” said Lori Smith, Vermont Futures Project Director. “As a result of this process we created a series of relevant research studies to support projected post-pandemic economic conditions. As it turned out, these research study topics provided a very helpful starting point to develop the UVM economic resiliency framework.”
Speaking on the motivation for the study, the Office of Engagement Director and Professor of Community Development & Applied Economics Chris Koliba adds, “As the UVM Office of Engagement was getting off of the ground, we needed to better understand the full range of challenges and opportunities facing the state. We initiated the roundtable study to assist in building our network ties, and envision ways that UVM can be supportive of serving the needs of all of Vermont.”
Challenges and Opportunities
Roundtable participants identified 14 challenges to economic resilience in Vermont including building an equitable environment for different races and genders, workforce training and up-skilling, addressing affordability issues for low-wage workers, and the need to build housing, transportation and broadband infrastructure.
Participants identified emerging opportunities in community economic development for Vermont, and made preliminary recommendations that highlight initiatives and programs already underway. Some of these areas, including both the social and physical infrastructure, may be eligible for federal pandemic recovery funding.
Growing a skilled workforce
Participants strongly emphasized the challenge and opportunity of re-skilling and up-skilling activities to address to the dynamic needs of employers, while providing individuals with stable and secure employment opportunities.
Focus on racial equity and building inclusion and belonging in communities
In every roundtable, the issue of race, equity, inclusion, and belonging arose as a key element of community economic development in Vermont.
Build investments for entrepreneurial enterprises
The ability to leverage the growth in innovation hubs, enterprise accelerators, maker spaces and co-working spaces emerging across the state was viewed as a critical opportunity to build upon.
Promote and sustain a remote workforce while maintaining thriving town centers
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many Vermonters to work-from-home while also enabling others seeking refuge from places outside of the state to work remotely for their employers.
Leverage Vermont’s quality of life as a critical feature in jobs attraction
The “Vermont lifestyle” is increasingly attractive given the conditions of the pandemic. A recent survey of individuals and families “sheltering in place” in Vermont due to COVID-19 showed that one-third of respondents indicated that they were “likely” or “very likely” to remain in Vermont after the pandemic.
Appreciate the role of the non-profit sector as a critical feature of the Vermont economy
Vermont has one of the highest number of non-profits per capita in the country. The state's non-profit sector is an important provider of social services and civic infrastructure while providing meaningful employment for a large number of Vermonters.
Invest in education, childcare, and preschool
The economic repercussions of inadequate childcare and access to education were a prominent theme amongst roundtable participants. From a challenge perspective, many participants indicated that Vermont’s educational system fails a significant number of young people.
Invest in broadband, housing, transportation, water, and energy infrastructure
A continued challenge for Vermont communities is poor housing and availability, quality, and cost of commercial property. New investment mechanisms for concentrated, mixed-use development and well-designed downtowns and neighborhoods could mediate this issue.
Pursue a collective impact approach to economic and workforce development, rooted in social equity
The networks of service providers working across the state to support economic development, public financing, arts and culture, social service delivery, planning, education, and workforce development provide an opportunity build a shared vision of economic success. The interconnectedness of economic and community life in Vermont requires a new approach to considering developmental paths forward that “lifts all boats” and positively impacts the lives and well-being of all Vermonters, with a focus on our most marginalized communities.
“A major take-away from this study is the need for more coordinated action among stakeholders,” Koliba adds. “In this report we lay out a vision for pursuing a collective impact approach to economic resiliency that we look to advance with partners across the state. These actions include creating a communications hub for community economic development and evolving our state’s data infrastructure. We believe that supporting these activities feed into UVM’s land grant mission.”
Workforce-employer gaps lead to high levels of job vacancies in a state where unemployment rates are historically among the lowest in the country
A repeated theme in the roundtables concerned the lack of availability of willing and able workers that align with current workforce needs. Roundtable participants discussed this deficit being fueled in part by low population density (Vermont’s small scale). The basic premise that Vermont’s population must grow in order to grow the economy and fill open positions and attract businesses to the state was the central challenge of workforce …. Additional factors include: lack of utilization or awareness of training and skills development opportunities, lack of counseling and education concerning existing employment opportunities available to Vermonters, or insufficient wages to incentivize workers- especially in light of associated costs like transportation costs or childcare costs that can come close to or surpass wage rates. Specific areas of greatest need for workers raised include: advanced manufacturing, cyber security, management, and entrepreneurship. From a workforce perspective, potential occupation gaps can provide insight into projected supply shortfalls by integrating forecasted occupation demand growth to the local population growth and projected educational attainment of those residents.
Job openings across occupation groups for the State of Vermont is provided in:
Vermont’s Job Openings by Occupation. Retrieved from EMSI, July 21st, 2021.
The above graphic indicates that the bulk of job openings in Vermont between 2019 and 2021 have been concentrated in office and administrative support occupations, food preparation and serving, and sales, all of which saw a decline in openings during 2020, likely due to business closures from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the industries with the largest number of job openings also align with the lowest-paying occupations in Vermont, as displayed below:
Lowest paying occupations in Vermont. Retrieved from EMSI, July 21st, 2021.
It is also apparent that the greatest volume of job vacancies occurs in occupations with low wages. Occupation groups including food preparation and serving, sales, and office and administrative support had some of the lowest wages, and experienced a contraction in employment between 2019 and 2020, likely due to the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence from communities in Vermont indicate that there is a high demand and low supply for workers in most of these low-paying occupations.
Lack of social equity, cultural diversity, and inclusivity stifles economic development and Innovation
Time and again, the roundtables raised the need to cultivate a culture and climate of welcoming, belonging and anti-racism across all of Vermont. It was widely recognized that the future economic resiliency of the state hinges on its ability to attract and retain a diverse workforce. In several roundtable sessions it was specifically noted that although the state of Vermont is often described as a progressive place, the persistence of systemic racism and anti-immigrant sentiments and behaviors leads to a depleted and increasingly insulated workforce, stifling creativity and innovation, and perpetuating patterns of exclusion. To put it succinctly, Vermont cannot overcome its workforce shortage without addressing systemic racism. The roundtable participants also noted that accessibility to opportunity can be a barrier to economic success for BIPOC Vermonters, noting that a lack of access to capital, or a lack of engagement around resources often occurs.
A key issue raised was a persistent sentiment that BIPOC Vermonters do not feel welcome in their communities, even if they had spent their entire lives there. This sentiment was also emphasized in the Report of the Executive Director of Racial Equity for Vermont, published in January 2021. In it, Executive Director Xusana Davis noted that, “many people across Vermont hold strong biases based on whether or not someone is ‘from Vermont or a ‘real Vermonter’” (Davis, 2021). Additionally, both roundtable participants and the report from the Executive Director of Racial Equity noted that communities of color in Vermont experienced higher rates of COVID-19, due in part to limited infrastructure geared towards keeping communities of color safe and healthy. This is verified by the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance data dashboard, which indicates that Vermonters of color contracted COVID-19 at a much higher rate than their white neighbors. Data from this source has also indicated that Vermonters of Color experience significantly lower homeownership rates than white Vermonters, and higher rates of unemployment, as indicated here:
Vermont’s race and ethnicity population breakdown, homeownership rates, and unemployment rates. Retrieved from the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, 2021.
Source: 9.16.2021. (BURLINGTON, VT) -- UVM Office of Engagement and Center for Rural Studies