Southern Vermont leads the state in one specific and challenging metric: its population is declining faster and aging more rapidly than the rest of the state. There is good evidence that those trends will extend to the rest of Vermont in the next few years. While employment has grown over the past 30 years, growth has already slowed and is highly concentrated in Chittenden County. The rest of the state has seen at best level and more commonly declining employment. Beneath these statistical perspectives is the real business cost: companies are having a hard time hiring and retaining early to mid-career professionals—engineers, medical professionals, finance, marketing, sales, etc. The critical skills that drive growth in a company are hard to find. This condition puts a hard cap on growth for our businesses and severely impacts our ability to attract or grow new companies.
Companies need a few key resources to grow: sound infrastructure, available capital, positive business environment (government policies and practices), and a qualified labor force. In Vermont challenges in the first three areas are known, but the third area has remained unexamined. In many cases it is one or two people per company who can make the difference between real success and just getting by — a marketing person knowledgeable in a specific industry segment, for instance, might be just what is needed to penetrate a market more successfully.
There has been a good deal of attention paid to a corner of this issue as the administration and Legislature have sought to address the perceived drain of college graduates. Parents, of course, feel this situation sharply as their children go off to college, whether in Vermont or elsewhere, then seek jobs outside of Vermont. While this is dramatic and highly noticeable because these are our children, this phenomenon is not new. The American Guide Series volume “Vermont,” published in 1937, noted that rural youth had been moving to urban employment since 1840.Vermont’s own children may or may not be the workers companies need in order to grow.
Attracting and retaining qualified professionals is affected by a number of factors: willingness to relocate to Vermont, availability of appropriate housing, family status, spouse or partner’s employment needs, etc. Lining up all of that for one job is really difficult. More than one company has reported going through all the professional interviews and qualifying steps only to run afoul of either a lack of housing or a spouse’s unwillingness to uproot and move here.
Attracting and retaining sufficient human capital is crucial to Vermont’s sustainability. While we need to explore developing all indigenous human resources, activating the senior worker and readying the marginal worker, we need to invest directly and strongly in attracting new and talented population to Vermont. This facet of the issue has been the responsibility of individual companies as they do their own recruiting.
Expecting an individual company, particularly a small one with limited HR capability, to support a broad recruiting drive to fill a critical position is asking too much.
Rather than expecting each business with a human resource need to build its own market approach to address a specific skill then encountering a hard stop at the point of moving to Vermont perhaps we could organize a way to attract people interested in Vermont then select the relevant professional skills.
By using today’s highly effective and efficient social networking tools to build and maintain communities of interest, coupled with skilled market targeting to approach the right demographics, skill sets, coupled with the fact that even at full bore the Vermont economy does not need millions of people, rather it needs tens or hundreds in the right skills. The opportunity is to take a long-term approach to building relationships and cultivating loyalty to Vermont and its economic community.
Jeffrey M. Lewis is executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, the RDC for Windham Region; a founding partner of the Campaign for Vermont; and a founder of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies.
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