Op - Ed, Opinion

The workforce crisis is complex

By Roxanne Vought

Talk to any business owner today and you’ll likely hear the same refrain: they’re struggling to find workers. They’ve tried everything: raising wages, sign-on bonuses, creative recruitment strategies, and they still can’t fill their openings. Some are eliminating product lines or reducing their manufacturing runs, others are cutting back hours.

How did we get here? For decades, Vermont’s workforce system was facing several ongoing challenges: the cost and time commitment of traditional educational degree programs; the stigma of pursuing technical education and the trades; lack of awareness of the many career, training, and job opportunities in the state; credit and credentials not transferring across institutional, state, and national borders; and increasing barriers to employment— all exacerbated by a secondary school funding formula and logistical challenges that disincentivized technical education, and capped off by a shrinking youth population.

Several organizations rose to meet these challenges, including those supporting youth, learners, and workers; our dedicated education and training providers; motivated employers; philanthropy partners; and our state leaders at Vermont’s agencies, regional development corporations, and state workforce development board. Without these groups and their efforts, our challenges would be far greater.

Then Covid struck, and its cataclysmic ripple effect turned a suite of challenges into a crisis.

In talking with the 675 members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) – of varied industries, geographies, and sizes – VBSR has developed a framework for understanding the factors contributing to Vermont’s current workforce crisis, mirrored nationally:

  • Inadequate social infrastructure (housing, childcare, broadband, healthcare, transportation)
  • Wages/compensation too low
  • Barriers to employment related to caretaking responsibilities and lived experience (formerly incarcerated/criminal history, in recovery or current substance use, transitioning from military to civilian life, intellectual and physical disabilities, and mental and physical health challenges)
  • Work culture not supportive of non-dominant identities (women and non-binary, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, all ability, LGBTQ+, mature workers and other marginalized and underrepresented identities, including those related to class and religion)
  • Actual/perceived employer bias
  • Inadequate education and training
  • Impediments to hiring international new workers
  • Actual/perceived risk of Covid exposure
  • Disconnect between interests/willingness of labor pool and available jobs
  • Insufficient number of working-aged people

Notably, few of these factors are dependent on individuals in the labor pool changing their behavior, but rather a revolution in the conditions created by government, employers, and communities. To effectively address Vermont’s workforce crisis, we need to evolve our state policy beyond providing education and increasing the number of people to addressing basic needs and the culture we create in our communities and workplaces.

VBSR will continue to work with our members and partners to advance workforce solutions, including revisioning Vermont’s workforce system to reflect our current labor market: high unemployment and a high number of job openings. Accepting where the current system has succeeded and failed will be key to this success, as will be increased communication and coordination across the workforce landscape (while training may be industry-specific, the challenges are largely not), and training near-term and future workers where they already are – in high school, on the job, in their communities, and in incarceration. Programs that support and subsidize training in these locations efficiently serve individuals, employers, and the economy: they lower barriers to employment, grow our workforce, and bolster economic mobility.

The convergence of several crises (climate change, health in all its forms, unequal distribution of power and wealth) has collectively broken our social contract, and basic needs that previous generations took for granted are now out of reach for many Vermonters.

This commentary is by Roxanne Vought of Weybridge, executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

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