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State Chamber head describes ‘workforce gap’

Bishop tells BACC members more needs to be done to attract new workers to Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—It’s a consistent theme sung by business leaders in Vermont — there aren’t enough workers to fill a growing employment gap in the state.

With the state’s unemployment rate hovering around 3 percent, there is a definite shortage of skilled workers. How to alleviate that shortage is a policy priority for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, according to Betsy Bishop, the group’s president.

Bishop made her annual visit to the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 30 at a breakfast meeting at the Brattleboro Retreat to outline the state Chamber’s goals in the 2018 session of the Legislature. How to bring more workers to Vermont dominated her remarks.

Right now, according to figures compiled by the Chamber’s Vermont Futures Project, Vermont averages about 3,500 high school graduates and 4,500 college graduates who stay in the state.

However, 11,375 Vermonters retire from the workforce every year, and 4,800 new jobs are created.

Add the average annual number of part-time positions that become full-time (1,200), people who leave Vermont whose positions need filling (1,000), and the number of temporary positions that need to be replaced (600), and you have an annual need for 18,975 workers.

With only 8,000 new graduates, that’s a gap of 10,975 workers.

“There’s nothing we can do, no legislation we can pass, that can fix that overnight,” Bishop said.

Enticing more people to come to Vermont is the most obvious solution, said Bishop, who said she has been conducting an exercise as part of the talks she has been giving around the states — asking the question “Why Vermont?”

“Most of the response fall into a couple of buckets,” Bishop said, with references to the beauty of Vermont, the quality of life, and the sense of community here.

But she said she was struck by the number of people in the room that filled up their yellow Post-It notes with these sentiments. She read from that column of notes.

“Best job offer.”

“Career opportunities.”

“As a [young professional], there are many opportunities to lead.”

“Of all the places I could live, I choose Vermont — the people, the beauty, the hope, the possibilities.”

“We can all make a difference.”

“A great place to foster a good work/life balance, which is so important.”

“Community and entrepreneurship.”

“Because there are many jobs and a fantastic lifestyle, have your cake and eat it too.”

Brattleboro was the eighth stop on Bishop’s visits with regional chambers of commerce, and she said it was the only place where many of the answers focused on opportunity as a reason to be in Vermont.

“We’re pleased to see this,” she said. “This is what Vermont needs more of.”

Bishop believes that too much attention has been focused on the current workforce, and not enough on filling what she called “the skills gap.”

“There’s a lot of training money available at the state and federal level,” she said. “What we haven’t seen is a focus on getting additional people here.”

For example, she said the state spends $2 million on marketing and promoting Vermont as a tourist destination but spends only a tenth of that, $200,000, on economic development marketing.

The state’s website is part of that marketing effort. Bishop said more needs to be done to convince people that “if you love us for a weekend, you might love us for a lifetime.”

Bishop said she realizes state government has little money to spare on a big marketing campaign, but if closing the workforce gap isn’t addressed soon, she said “employers will be looking for other solutions” that could include relocating their businesses in another state.

As for other legislative priorities for the coming session, Bishop said the state chamber will continue its focus on “consistent and predictable fiscal policy that does not increase taxes on businesses or their customers.”

It also will push for a re-examination of Act 250, the state’s land development law, to see if it can be less cumbersome for businesses that seek to expand.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #437 (Wednesday, December 6, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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