Vermont has a workforce crisis

By Paul Bean

Editor’s note: Paul Bean is a resident of Northfield and a candidate for Vermont Senate in Washington County.

In honor of Labor Day, I wanted to talk about our workforce. Vermont is a challenging place in which to live, and we want to ensure that our youth are being educated on the most valuable skills they can use to meet their expenses and grow themselves as people. Education and development include far more than tangible skills.

It’s no secret to anyone that Vermont has a workforce crisis. But our workforce crisis is representative of a much greater issue. We have a “shortage of meaningfulness.” I’ve seen this and experienced this. People feel as if their work lacks meaning and purpose. This goes across all sectors of business.

Before the pandemic, this was an issue but has only been exacerbated by the unintended consequences of the measures we took in the name of safety. Today we see only 61% workforce participation in Vermont — 20,000 workers short of what’s needed. For context, workforce participation was well over 70% before the turn of the millennium.

Workforce development has long been a key component of Governor Phil Scott’s objectives, and this is for good reason. When people are given a skill, a mission or a goal to strive for, their lives are much more fulfilling.

There is an unfortunate stigma about not going to college — that you won’t ever be able to find meaningful, well-paid work.

Make no mistake, this is completely untrue. Some of the most successful people I know did perfectly well without attending university of any kind. I know young people who own their trucks, their homes and even their own businesses. My hat goes off to these hard workers. They have figured it out — they have found what works. To solve our workforce crisis, we need to put more energy, time and funding into our vocational schools and trade schools.

College is not for everyone! College can prepare one for many challenges, but not all, and right now we have a need for skilled workers. Example: Have you had trouble getting a plumber to your house? How about an electrician? These are challenging jobs, and some of them are very dangerous! They require our best and brightest minds.

When I look at the great civilizations of the past and see the great structures and testaments of time that have been built, I wonder, what drove them to do such incredible things? How did they even do it?

They were driven to create something great, and something that went much further beyond building for the sake of money. Money, while a useful tool, has its limits. You can throw all the money in the world at a project, but if you don’t have a team of driven, creative and efficient visionaries, the work is meaningless and ugly.

How can one ignite that flame? Where are the intangible values?! Truthfully, when I look back at history and the incredible feats of humans, I feel a little jealous!

When I’ve worked on job sites and workplaces, a common theme I’ve experienced is a feeling of meaninglessness. Menial, repetitive tasks, with no major objective or goal to achieve. There is a notion in the air that “Well, this is what I’ll be doing for the next 40 years so I may as well take my time.”

What are we building? Why are we working? Ultimately, we are building a better society! People must feel as if their work is adequately compensated. They want the bills paid, food on the table, a roof over their heads, money aside for personal projects and passions, and for the future. But they also want the satisfaction of having accomplished something worthwhile!

If we can offer all that to a young person just out of college or high school then our workforce issue is gone. The opportunities are there, it just takes one’s own ambition to achieve! With the right vision and right legislation, Vermont can be an example to the rest of the world as a culture committed to greatness in our work.

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