BRATTLEBORO—Representatives from businesses across Windham County gathered in the cafeteria of the School for International Training’s Stephen and Nita Lowey International Center. They sipped coffee and shared stories from the trenches of doing business in a state with an unemployment rate of 2.1 percent.
It was time for a regional SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis.
“This is a real and continuing challenge for our employment base,” said Jeff Lewis, a consultant hired to hold the summit.
The former executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) said the solutions will require employers and policy makers to shift their responses from short-term fixes to long-term system changes.
Lewis and another independent consultant, Erika Hoffman-Kiess, have been retained to compile a report to the state on challenges faced by Vermont employers and potential regional solutions for the state’s 12 RDCs, which are working with with the Vermont Department of Labor and the state Workforce Development Board to compile information.
‘Too much talk, not enough action’
This effort kicked off in Brattleboro on Oct. 3 as the first of 12 such meetings across the state.
Information gathered at all the summits intended to help participants build better “stronger systems,” as described in a BDCC news release. The information will also feed into a report to the State Workforce Development Board to help the board create its 2020 Workforce Strategy.
In the morning, local employers met with Lewis, Hoffman-Kiess, members of the BDCC, and representatives from the state. The afternoon section was geared toward service providers.
Janette Bombardier, chief technology officer for Chroma Technology Corp., underscored the value of participating in these events, describing the initiative in a press release as “very important to our success.”
“Our ability to develop additional solutions to attract key talent to the region and continue to develop the skills of our existing workforce is a critical imperative to growing our business,” Bombardier said.
“These summits are going to provide actionable solutions for employers as well as our mutual service providers,” BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold said.
“Historically in Vermont and across the nation we use jobs to represent the strength of the economy,” he added. “Unemployment, projected job growth, and high school graduation rates are key data points are used to direct funding in Vermont for our workforce and community systems.”
Yet many local “good jobs” that offer higher wages, benefits, and opportunity for career growth, are going unfilled.
“We do need to think bigger, long-term, and system-wide,” Grinold said. “The career path to your jobs are not necessarily clear to students or parents or underemployed Vermonters or those looking to relocate and start a new life in Vermont.”
Along with training workers for local jobs, employers needed to better communicate what careers they offer, Grinold continued.
“So we must continue to align that system for that regional demand for today and tomorrow,” he said. “People need opportunities and employers need people.”
“Vermont workforce development is people-centered, but employer-driven,” Grinold said. “So please know we hear you, there’s too much talk, and not enough action and that people across the state are working to align your needs with opportunities so you can get that skilled worker you so much need.”
State takes measures to address workforce issues
The news that Vermont has fewer workers participating in the labor force is nothing new. An aging workforce and a declining population are two reasons given for the tight labor market.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has made recruiting new workers to the state a priority for his administration. In recent years, the state has launched incentive programs such as Stay-to-Stay, billed as an “exploratory vacation,” where potential Vermonters visit for a weekend and consider moving to the state permanently.
Or the much-touted and much-criticized Remote Worker Grant Program, which will reimburse up to $5,000 in relocation expenses, for up to two years, for people moving to the state who also bring a remote job.
Many Vermonters have criticized this program for not helping people already living in the state. Meanwhile, state officials have argued that the nationwide publicity the grant program garnered makes the program worth it.
Brett Long, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said that the Scott administration has outlined priorities for the department’s workforce development efforts.
Priority number one is to grow the workforce by attracting people to the state. Along with the existing programs, the department is developing an incentive program for employers who bring workers into the state.
Not enough workers
As Lewis pointed out at the Oct. 3 meeting, the challenges faced in Vermont mirror what is happening nationwide.
There just aren’t enough workers, he said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers participating in the workforce has declined over more than a decade. In 2000, the percentage of people eligible to work and who held jobs was 67.3 percent. In September 2019, that percentage had dropped to 63.2 percent.
According to Lewis, Vermont has also seen a decline in its labor participation rate.
The labor crunch has happened over several years, Lewis added. The solution will require system-wide changes.
Employers attending the morning portion of the summit shared how the lack of workers is impacting their businesses. Common themes included needing to contract the business because not enough people could fill shifts, produce products, or deliver services.
This contraction has affected businesses of all types and sizes, based on feedback from those attending the summit.
For example, manufacturing companies that used to operate three shifts have cut back to one or two. A nonprofit service provider has a long wait list of clients because it lacks the staff to provide services. A local food distributor can’t get enough drivers for deliveries.
Several employers noted how the lack of workers is also hurting their current workforce. The lack of workers has led to more overtime for current workers, which can also lead to burnout.
A few employers said they have compromised on their hiring standards, opting for a “good-enough model” rather than finding the ideal candidate to fill open positions.
Employers said they now offer more benefits or have raised wages to attract workers. Lewis agreed with the practice, saying that the workplace is a marketplace and employers will need to respond to it.
“This is not unique to Vermont,” he said. “There are people having this conversation across the U.S.”
Throughout the morning, employers worked through the SWOT exercise, also noting potential action steps.
Strengths identified in the conversation included access to a three-state labor-shed, the attractiveness of the Vermont lifestyle, and access to a network of human resources professionals.
Weaknesses identified included employee burnout, the risk of tarnishing a business’s reputation if it has to contract, and the time and effort it takes to navigate employee support systems, such as working with the Office of Corrections or scheduling around an employee’s appointment for Suboxone treatment.
Threats included the inability to find workers with specific skills, the lack of staff to train new workers, and the lack of adequate resources for human resource development.
Employers also noted that attracting and retaining workers often hinged on whether workers could easily access transportation services and affordable housing. Business representatives also said that they often have had to explain that while Vermont has a high quality of life, it also has a high cost of living.
When the conversation turned to creating action steps, or strategies, employers identified more ways to create partnerships.
Some examples include realigning Southern Vermont Transit’s bus schedules to match workers’ commute times, partnering with landlords in the Deerfield Valley to use rental housing in the off-season, developing training programs that hop from one workplace to another rather than every company creating individual ones, and creating environments where workers feel valued.
“[The Vermont Department of Labor] want[s] to do this over several years,” starting with gathering knowledge about the workforce issues at the regional level, said Lewis of the summit. “Which will inform policy, which will inform funding, which will inform programs at the regional levels.”
Lewis said the labor crunch has started to create doubt and negative feelings about the economy as a whole and the state’s ability to grow and flourish. The challenges to finding workers exists “up and down” the skill levels and across all industry sectors, he noted.
He stressed that the workforce summits would focus on what is happening at the regional levels — where hiring happens, despite the tendency for workforce funding and programming to be created at the federal and state levels, he said.
Despite that relative lack of influence in policymaking, understanding the regional landscape is important, according to Lewis, because it may mean that state programming and funding needs to be more flexible to meet regional needs.