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  • To set a course for economic growth, we must act now. Looking into the future, there are warning signs: a declining population, an aging workforce, low unemployment, and employers struggling to find employees.
  • Thank you for sharing your energy, ideas and vision at the Vermont Futures Project forums.

The Vermont Futures Project

The Vermont Futures Project promotes the long-term economic health of Vermont that provides opportunity for Vermonters. Through leadership, research and education, the Vermont Futures Project seeks to inform the conversation about Vermont’s economic future and demonstrate how a healthy economy contributes to Vermont’s vibrant communities and unique quality of life.

The Vermont Dashboard

The Vermont Dashboard is a snapshot of the current economic health of Vermont that gives leaders important metrics to understand and measure progress in securing Vermont’s future. The Vermont Dashboard’s key indicators benchmark Vermont’s economic growth to stimulate conversation and prompt action that will achieve measurable and positive outcomes.


(From Commerce Connections Issue: August 2016)

Vermont is a great place to live, work and play. The quality of life keeps people here, draws people home. Why are employers having such a hard time filling jobs? Why don’t more young people choose Vermont today? For Vermont to work for working Vermonters, we have to make sure the “value proposition” works too. This means focusing on what it takes to live well in Vermont, given wages and cost of living.

In Vermont even the hottest August days end in cool evenings, reminding us to enjoy the fleeting summer. Visitors who come here to enjoy some fresh air and fresh food remind us how lucky we are to have nature at our doorstep every day. We encourage people to think of Vermont as a place to play, but also to live and work. We need more young people, more talent, and in many towns just more residents.

The allure of Vermont endures as a place that offers a balance for working people and working families, a place where you can mountain bike before work each day, snowmobile all weekend, and raise healthy and happy children in a safe and beautiful setting. This is a place to set down roots, buy a home, start a business, build a life. But for working Vermonters the numbers have to work. Many economic conversations focus on the “value proposition” for retirees or affluent residents, whether state tax code is pushing them to Florida, or not. Other economic conversations focus on raising the floor for Vermonters living in poverty, by moving wages and benefits forward.

The size, stability and mobility of households in the middle of the income ladder gets very little airtime. Yet, Vermont’s economic future will be built on the success, or struggles, of average people. In the wake of news about yet another revenue downgrade, where disappointing state income tax revenues once again will force last-minute cuts, we must question Vermont’s increasing reliance on a small base of affluent taxpayers. It brings risk, risk we can mitigate with a deeper and stronger base of earners.

But right now, the value proposition for working Vermonters is weak. Too many working people are still unable to live well in Vermont. It’s time to pay attention to the equations that drive the choices of real people:

Vermont needs to focus on the economic success of those who work here, not just those who live and play in Vermont. In a slow-growth economy we have to pay attention to both sides of the equation – improving economic activity as well as the cost of living. The Futures Project is about looking ahead to the Vermont our children will live in. Most of Vermont is nearing retirement. That perspective is limiting our vision. We need to plan for a child born today to have more than a higher minimum wage.

Too many people can’t make numbers work to live in Vermont. While we argue about whether retirees are coming or going, young adults are going. They are choosing places where the tradeoffs don’t put them in the red. Whether it’s paying off student loans, paying off a home, or building towards their own retirement, working people are making hard choices in life, and we’re making it hard to choose Vermont. It’s not because they don’t ‘get it’. It’s because we don’t get it.

(From Commerce Connections Issue: July 2016)

Vermont’s employers need workers. Very low unemployment and rising job creation have been good news, but they show we have come up against a fundament problem of supply, a talent “drought”. Unfortunately we lack specific and timely data about unmet demand – unfilled positions today, upcoming openings due to impending retirements, and additional talent Vermont firms need to grow and thrive for years to come. We need to understand demand, and establish a responsive workforce pipeline to ensure Vermont’s talent pool is deep and wide.

Demand identification and measurement are critical to any business plan, whether selling tomatoes locally or medical equipment nationwide. A hardworking, well-educated workforce is a great Vermont “product”, but supply is limited.

We hear clearly from employers that they need workers – non-profits, colleges, government, hospitals, builders, banks, restaurants and manufacturers. But the data we rely only offers clues as to how many: A position filled is counted in jobs data, a person laid off in unemployment data. Labor projections are based on assumed growth. Beyond Chittenden, where 60-70% of Vermont’s economic activity takes place, workforce supply lags around pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, supply dwindles as people retire and population growth increases the number of seniors, not young workers.

Vermont’s workforce demand must be understood fully, including (1) positions unfilled, (2) projected retirements, and (3) “Opportunity Hires” – someone firms will create a job for, because their skills will help the firm grow. Some regions have done employer surveys, using the data to match workforce training and recruitment with local demand and opportunities. Statewide data would help overcome issues of mismatch between employees and employers, in terms of supply, and training.

Sometimes we don’t realize a drought is upon us until we reach the river on a hot August day and the water’s low and slow. The pool of talent is a critical resource for our economy, like the water we need – to play in, to grow food, to survive. Businesses offering $12-15/hr for entry-level work are struggling to fill jobs because 3.1% unemployment is a sign of drought. For businesses to grow and thrive, they need to a talent pool deep enough for a good, long swim. Vermont’s future requires stewardship of our economic resources equal to our stewardship of the environment.

(From Commerce Connections Issue: June 2016)

At the Vermont Futures Project forums we heard widespread concern about the economy, but little confidence we can do something about it. Through economic development and policy we can foster regional and state economies. Approach range from creating skills and training programs that meet the demands of emerging sectors, to ensuring housing and community quality to attract and retain talent. Vermont’s quality-of-life centered approach aligns with today’s economic development best-practices, which look very different from the race-to-the bottom and smokestack chasing of the past.

What is economic development anyway? This spring the Vermont Futures Project held ten events across the state to present data from VTFuturesProject.org. Over 400 Vermonters participated and shared their visions for the future. There was hopefulness, but also fear that economic development and policy in Vermont won’t help solve increasingly worrisome budget and workforce deficits. Vermont urgently needs policy and practices to secure healthy economic growth or quality of life risks being undermined by the bottom line.

Fortunately, a quality-of-life centered approach aligns with today’s economic development best-practices, which look very different from the race-to-the bottom and smokestack chasing of the past. Workforce is front and center in leading regional, state and national programs. Our research underscores Vermont’s need to attract, retain and train talent to power Vermont’s economy. The recently published Vermont Economic Development Marketing Plan is one strategy to secure a future workforce (check out page 55 for the Vermont Futures Project Dashboard).

However, modern economic development takes a multi-dimensional approach, focusing on conditions where individuals and employers thrive. In Vermont, at least three are potentially rate-limiters for economic growth:

  • Housing – statewide, problems with cost, quality, location and supply undermine workforce attraction and retention goals.
  • Broadband – Vermont needs nodal and tiered deployment strategies, not widespread low-level service, if we are to support better jobs with better wages.
  • Capital investment –investment in existing firms allows them to innovate and compete, and continue to produce most of Vermont’s jobs.

The availability of these resources are impacted, limited, or entirely directed by state and local policies.

Where do we start? Wherever we can. Vermont’s economic future depends upon smart policymaking – making hard choices like targeting resources for greater impact. Improving regulations to create certainty and quality outcomes, and attracting private investment. Right now, the Vermont economy needs your voice to attract the attention it deserves.

(From Commerce Connections Issue: May 2016)

Vermont loves small businesses. But most working families are fully or partially dependent upon someone employed by a large company, hospital, college or government. The state’s larger firms provide higher wages and growth opportunity for employees. A healthy employment mix that includes employers of all sizes provides stability to individual households, and to our economy.

In Vermont 80% of employment is in established businesses[1] and new jobs overwhelmingly created by these firms. Vermont’s 5 year startup survival rate is one of the best in the nation, a testament to our entrepreneurial culture but also specific efforts. But the share of jobs created by startups has been trending down[2]: in 2002 6% of VT jobs came from ‘entrants’, in 2012 only 3%, putting us in the bottom 10% nationally. We increasingly rely on established firms to create jobs which is why the health, retention and growth of existing businesses and institutions is critical.

A dynamic economy with diverse opportunities for employment and entrepreneurs requires attention to baseline conditions for success, including the resources to develop, attract and retain a wide range of talent. Some firms come from outside, but most startups grow from the base of existing organizations, businesses, and talent. Whether firms produce software or world class cheese, they provide a critical base of activity and talent to grow any sector.

Larger and mature firms provide assets young workers require; reputation, training, financial equity, career mobility, mentoring and networks. Generally, larger firms can offer better pay and benefits. In Vermont we love our small businesses, but many households have one person employed by a small firm (or self-employed), with another working in a large company, hospital, college or government. This employment mix provides stability to individual households, and to our economy. For the Vermont lifestyle is attractive and economically viable we continue to need a robust mix of opportunities. This must include options and a path forward for each individual, and a diverse mix of employers.

[1] All data is from the U.S. Census Bureau, Business Dynamics Series.

The Vermont Chamber Foundation creates a voice for Vermont’s long-term
economic health through sustained leadership and a commitment to research
and education that supports economic growth.