By Michael Metz
Editor’s Note: Michael Metz is a retired materials scientist, entrepreneur, and business owner. He has a history of board leadership with profit and nonprofit organizations and currently serves in that role for the Maker Space Generator and The Vermont Community Foundation. This commentary is the seventh in a 10-part series in which the authors respond to the pressing topics identified in a draft “Proposition for the Future of Vermont” developed by the non-partisan Vermont Council on Rural Development, futureofvermont.org.
Part 7: Vermont must strengthen business vitality advancing
entrepreneurship, investment, workforce and rural innovation
There is ample evidence to illustrate why workforce development is essential.
Vermont’s rate of job growth lags behind the national average. Colleges have closed with more likely to fail. Employment has shrunk and not entirely due to Covid. Vermont is the second grayest state in the nation and many of our companies are facing a labor shortage crisis with the retirement of their skilled workforce. Some of our wealthier retirees disappear to Florida, taking their tax dollars and accumulated wisdom with them – a double loss for those of us left behind. The youth too flee the state, largely for jobs and affordable housing.
Yet, there is so much reason to be optimistic. The data is clear: startups are the biggest driver of wealth creation in both urban and rural communities, we can grow our tax base with successful entrepreneurs, and the majority of new jobs are being created by small (really small) companies.
I’d like to offer three examples drawn from personal experience that show what I believe we are doing right to advance innovation, entrepreneurship, and rural and workforce development. If we can take the lessons learned and apply them more broadly, we’re on our way to a stronger economy, a better and more diverse society, and an increased tax base to benefit all.
The first is Generator, Burlington’s maker space. This 11,000 square foot facility, located in a converted warehouse space in Burlington’s South End Creative Corridor, offers seven labs with comprehensive tool sets: woodworking, electronics, metal fabrication, sewing, jewelry, rapid prototyping (3-D printing, laser cutting, CNC mill) and a computer center. It offers free high-speed internet and runs classes, training, networking opportunities, lecture series, meet-ups, mentoring, and boot camps for aspiring entrepreneurs. Physically designed to foster collaboration, happy accidents arise from Generator’s diversity, density, and an engaged learning community.
In the past seven years, dozens of businesses have launched from this facility. This includes some that will likely hit the big time, like OVR, which works with scent added to virtual reality. A hotbed of innovation, local employers look to Generator to find creative talent. Beta Air, for example, has drawn workforce from Generator members since their earliest days. Generator has also become a community resource in times of crisis, most recently with the fabrication of PPE to support essential healthcare workers across the state in the early days of the pandemic.
The second example is the effort of the Curtis Fund and the McClure Foundation in collaboration with the Vermont Student Acceptance Corp. and the Community College of Vermont. Their “Pathways to Promising Careers” program provides guidance and funding for under-resourced Vermont students of all ages to access training with a “certificate of value” as the end measure of achievement. These certificates are stackable and offer short-term paths to good paying jobs that advance one’s career, earning power, and academic progress.
The third model is the work-based learning program at Spaulding high school in Barre. This is directed toward a workforce development initiative born from the concept that college is not for everyone, but skills and networking create bright futures. Here, Generator works with high school students along with their work-based learning coordinators and local employers to train students for employment and internship opportunities available straight from high school. Now in its fifth year, the program has become a model that others seek to build upon. The vision is for maker/innovation spaces to be located in many rural high schools, serving students and the community.
What have we learned from all this? Collaboration is powerful; we’re better together. Innovation takes resources and the freedom to experiment. Repeated failures should be embraced as a prelude to success. Experiential learning, critical thinking, design thinking and hands-on learning are at the core of any successful start-up. Successful entrepreneurs keep our community growing and relevant, while solving community problems, and attracting significant investment from beyond the state. As to cost, private philanthropy and the Vermont Community Foundation have provided seed funding. Hopefully, state and federal funding will follow.
While I could provide many more examples, here is a quick look at some other factors relevant to workforce development and economic vitality:
We need to bump up our success in attracting and supporting entrepreneurs, remote workers, and their families. For this, we have to craft a winning case as to why Vermont is the best place to live and work. Reliable statewide internet is critical or whole segments of our population will be left out of this conversation. Nor will we be able to attract new folks and businesses to many of our rural communities.
Reliable, affordable childcare is critical, and let’s make sure it has a sharp eye on early childhood education. Without a firm grounding in math from K through 3rd grade, for example, our students will have a hard time competing in today’s world.
We have to forecast what will be needed in the future and aim to provide the workforce to fill it. Climate change. Immigration. Automation. Eldercare. Energy conservation… Twenty years ago, we didn’t have AI, driverless cars, drone delivery, iPhones, Siri, Zoom, or even computers. The first portable computer weighed in at 40 pounds and could not support gaming more sophisticated than Pong! What’s next? What will we need and how can we prepare our students for the jobs of the future? One thing we can count on: change is a constant and always presents new opportunities.
The tax system has to change, or we will continue to lose our wealthiest to Florida or other more tax favorable locations and limit our ability to attract vibrant new talent to the state. Consider Miami, which aggressively reached out to Silicon Valley with tax incentives to recruit residents and industry – and succeeded. Affordable housing will retain our next generation and attract a more diverse population, both of which contribute to innovation. We must continue to invest in our recreational and cultural assets across the state. There is little question that quality of life, particularly as we adapt to more remote working, is an important consideration when relocating.
Great storytelling matters. We have to construct an authentic, but robust narrative that highlights the state’s qualities most attractive to the young, creative, innovative workforce we need to nurture in order for Vermont to thrive.