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Data shines light on workforce challenges, state population

BRATTLEBORO—In its State of Working Vermont Report 2019, the Public Assets Institute (PAI) in Montpelier released data related to the health of the Vermont economy — data that tell some complex stories.

Workforce shortages and a declining student population have been at the center of the Scott Administration’s concerns about affordability in the state.

Last year, the Vermont Department of Labor held a series of meetings in communities around the state. At a Brattleboro gathering, organizers asked business owners about their workforce challenges.

Many reported that, yes, they struggled to find workers and some reported the shortage has stifled expansion efforts.

According to data from PAI, the state’s labor force, or the number of people age 16 and older available to work, has dropped by 13,000 people between 2010 and 2018 — the largest percentage drop in New England.

PAI staff pointed to several reasons for this shortage: baby boomers retiring, fewer people in the state between the ages of 35 and 54, and a drop in workforce participation.

Staff also found that, according to IRS tax filings, the income group which moved in and out of the state the most earned between $10,000 and $25,000. The group of continuous filers with incomes above $200,000 saw a net gain in population.

This data can tell a worrying story that the cost of living in Vermont is too expensive — or wages are too low — so it’s losing lower-wage households. That same data can tell a story that Vermont’s tax system is not driving higher-wage households away in search of cheaper places to live.

On the bright side, the numbers did not support an oft-repeated narrative that the state is losing population.

Between 2010 and 2018, Vermont gained 555 people. Most of the “new” Vermonters were either born in the state or moved here from another country.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #543 (Wednesday, January 8, 2020). This story appeared on page A6.

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