By Guy Page
Franklin County’s transition from economically-depressed center of declining railroad and dairy industries to thriving manufacturing hub didn’t just happen. To the casual onlooker it may have looked like a miracle, but it took decades of hard work. Determined planning and salesmanship by private-public partnerships like the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation (FCIDC) welcomed new industry with industrial parks, wastewater treatment, affordable energy and fair-but-friendly regulations.
“If you build it, they will come,” said the ethereal voice in “Field of Dreams.” And come the employers did. The “major employers” page of FCIDC’s website includes dozens of manufacturers and food processors, drawn by (relatively) low real estate prices and (for some) by the raw materials provided by the county’s dairy industry.
No-one ever thought there would be a shortage of workers.
Everyone thought Vermonters would flock to these relatively high-paying, benefits-producing jobs. Compared to the long, irregular hours and low pay of farm labor and the service industry, these jobs were gold. But now, some employers who invested millions in Franklin County operations are looking elsewhere. There just aren’t enough workers.
For example, Kaytec in Richford. In 1992, Richford was a perpetually low-income Canadian border town in the northeastern corner of Franklin County. That year, drawn by a willing labor pool, the Quebec-based vinyl-siding manufacturer invested $8 million in its Richford plant. It now runs two shifts of well-paid (starting at about $18/hr) workers. With a property tax valuation of $3.6 million, Kaytec contributes significant local taxes, according to a story by editor Greg Lamoureux in the April 29 County Courier, Franklin County’s well-read weekly newspaper.
Kaytec now wants to start a third shift. But it just can’t find the workers – a situation unthinkable two or three decades ago. Lamoureux writes, “What brought the company to Richford may now be what forces it to leave – a lack of workers willing to fill the jobs at the plant.”
And it’s not just Kaytec. The shortage of workers is, to coin a phrase, pandemic. In rural Vermont, it’s everywhere.
Getting workers also is a big concern for potential newcomers. “The access to employees is always the first question,” FCIDC Executive Director Tim Smith said.
Of these three problems, population – rather the demographic depopulation of prime working age Vermonters – has been around the longest and is the best understood. Since taking office in 2016, Gov. Scott has warned about the daily hemorrage of workers to others states crippling the economy outside of Chittenden County. A bill he signed into law began in January, 2019 to pay skilled workers $10,000 to move to Vermont.
The pandemic led to generous state and federal unemployment benefits. Government leaders reasoned that workers didn’t cause the pandemic shutdown and therefore must not be allowed to suffer because of it. But now, over a year after the initial shutdown, businesses like Kaytec are begging unsuccessfully for workers. Until this week, unemployed Vermonters were eligible for up to $531/week in state unemployment benefits (much of it paid from federal dollars) without needing to look for work. The work-search requirement – apply for at least three jobs or your benefits are cut off – was only reinstituted this week. The federal unemployment benefit of $300/week – above and beyond the state payment – is funded through September.
“People make interview appointments and they don’t show up,” a Kaytec manager told the County Courier. “It’s a challenge given the incentives that the government has given to stay home….you don’t even have to look for a job anymore and you get paid.”
And finally there’s pot. Manufacturers in particular require drug testing of workers using expensive, harmful-if-misused equipment. Marijuana stays in the bloodstream for weeks. In the last decade, marijuana consumption has been decriminalized, legalized, and then licensed for retail sale. Not surprisingl,y public acceptance of consumption has grown.
“One company reported a 40% failure rate,” Smith told Vermont Daily. He told the Courier, “that drug failure is usually due to marijuana. What we’ve done as a state has sent mixed messages, to say that smoking marijuana is legal, but when you deal with multi-national companies, it’s still in their policy that smoking marijuana is not acceptable.”
Industry advocates warned Vermont lawmakers of the workforce challenges marijuana legalization could create. They also have been arguing for unemployment insurance policies that would induce Vermonters to return to work. In both cases they were generally ignored or told in effect, ‘we’ll solve that problem if it ever happens.’ Vermonters can only hope that happens before disillusioned employers solve it for them.