By Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development
It’s no secret: Vermont needs more Vermonters.
The shortage of residents currently calling Vermont home impacts everything from tax rates and school funding to community infrastructure and business retention.
Just look at the state’s labor force participation rate, which dropped 5% in the last two years, from 66.4% in December 2019 to 61.3% in December 2021. This decline represents 26,000 fewer Vermonters who are working or actively looking for work, as compared to 24 months ago.
And with only around 8,000 individuals on unemployment (meaning those who currently aren’t working but are actively looking for a job), we are falling well short of the workforce needed to fill all the open jobs in the state.
While efforts are underway to help existing Vermonters fill these jobs, the above math shows we also need to take a proactive approach to welcoming new individuals and families to call Vermont home. We all understand the resistance to spending money to recruit folks to the state. But the fact is, in the same way a business cannot wait around for customers to walk through the door, we cannot sit idly by waiting for people to become aware of Vermont. And it’s clear a hands-off approach hasn’t been working.
Other often-heard arguments against recruitment initiatives and incentives are that there is no available housing, the state needs better broadband and cell service, and we should be focusing on engaging refugees, new Americans, and college graduates to retain those populations before they leave.
But here’s the good news: We find ourselves in a moment of unprecedented opportunity to use federal funds to address all those issues in real time — and we are.
The puzzle of economic recovery and revitalization, if we are going to solve it, requires fresh ideas, strong engagement with local partners, and a willingness to invest now for a future that remains a bit unknown. No one appropriation, no one bill, no one program is going to be the ultimate answer. We must work on multiple issues from multiple angles. Recruitment, relocation and retention of new Vermonters is one of those angles.
The time is now to set up the recruitment network and infrastructure needed to support moving people to every corner of the state when new housing comes online, broadband rolls out, and businesses expand. We shouldn’t wait another two years to start this work. Doing so will only make our workforce shortage more difficult to solve, and we need more workers now.
In 2018, supporting people coming to Vermont by helping to pay for their moving expenses was a first-in-the-nation idea and effort. Vermont may have been first out of the gates, but today there are more than 50 of these types of incentive programs across the country. The rest of America is catching up as more people are actively moving. We must keep innovating and investing to attract folks who are ready to relocate, or we risk falling behind.
We need to make our relocation incentive programs permanent and we need to empower local cities and towns by giving them the resources they need to “close the deal” when somebody expresses interest in moving here — and have the supports in place to make sure they want to stay.
Currently, the ThinkVermont Connect with a Vermonter Form is getting frequent requests from people looking for advice about moving to Vermont. People want to know about schools, housing, recreation opportunities, and which employers in the community are hiring. These are the kind of details people need to know when making decisions on where to move. On-the-ground support, especially in rural areas, can make all the difference when trying to convert a prospective resident into an actual resident.
Right now, regional chambers of commerce, downtown organizations, young professionals’ networks and others are volunteering their time and staff to make this happen. It’s time to properly fund this effort so that we consistently make that personal connection to close the deal.
It’s why the governor’s budget calls for about $8 million over a three-year period to establish this network. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in housing, broadband and redevelopment of our cities and towns. This recruitment initiative will help us attract the workers we need to support a strong economy so we can continue investing in these types of projects, and Vermonters, long into the future.
By strengthening the recruitment pipeline throughout the state, we can better support folks who want to move here, which will benefit employers, current residents, and the communities we all call home.
The consequences of inaction, and the benefits of acting on recruitment opportunities now, are too great to ignore.