Roper: Lawmakers’ appetite for state programs is way bigger than the state’s work force

by Rob Roper

A friend told me for the next three weeks she has to drive seven miles into town each day to collect her mail from the post office because her deliverer is going in for surgery and there is nobody available to take over the route. Indeed, our own daily mail delivery has been pretty much hit or miss for the past year.  

Finding labor is not just a problem here, it’s a statewide problem. And it’s not just a problem finding postal workers, it’s a problem across every industry.

Headlines today highlight the fact that prison workers are having to do twelve hour shifts instead of eight five days a week to cover for a 20-25% vacancy rate among security staff.

Over the past six months we’ve heard and read about:

The shortage of nurses. According to a piece in Seven Days, “A third of Vermont’s registered nurses are at least 55 years old, meaning that the next decade will likely bring another wave of retirements. It’s now estimated that Vermont will need to add 1,800 nurses in each of the next five years to keep pace with the demand. That’s about three times as many graduates as Vermont’s four colleges with nursing programs…”

The shortage of primary care physicians.  “We are definitely in a period where we are seeing physicians aging out of practice and not the supply coming in to replace them,” Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, told the Bennington Banner this past summer.  “There is already a shortage, so the next several years are going to be difficult for bringing in primary care for our area.”

The shortage of classroom teachers and support staff. According to testimony by the VTNEA to the House Education Committee on January 18, 2023, it was “Difficult to retain teachers prior to the pandemic… Currently 1,200 teachers are working under emergency and provisional licenses. School support staff vacancies are very high:… paraeducators, bus drivers, food service workers, behavioral interventions, custodians – are critical to meeting the needs of students, but are very difficult to attract and retain.”

It’s restaurant workers, carpenters, retail service, you name it. And while this is a national problem it is particularly acute here in Vermont. According to a study by HelpAdvisor, “Nearly 45% of small businesses in Missouri and Vermont are having a hard time finding new workers,” which makes us the two worst states in the country for available labor force.

During the 2022 gubernatorial campaign debates it came up that there are 20,000 job openings in Vermont and only 1500 people looking.

So, when Vermont legislators are prioritizing vast new programs requiring literally thousands of workers to make them function the proper reaction would be to scratch one’s head and say, “good luck with that.”

The Vermont Senate’s number one priority right now is the Clean Heat Standard bill, S.5, which calls for installing 145,000 heat pumps weatherizing 85,000 homes. The most ardent supporters of the bill estimate this program will require a labor force of 5000 trained workers in place in two years to have any hope of accomplishing these mandates. There are about 700 such workers – plumbers and electricians — in the state as of now. And they are all busy, many of them doing other important things like coming to fix my twenty-year-old water filtration system next week.

The Vermont House of Representatives’ number one priority right now is a massive expansion of early childcare in the state. Part of their proposal includes essentially adding a grade to the pre-k-12 system by creating a full day, five day a week program for four-year-olds. Did they not get the NEA memo referenced above that we can’t even staff the grades we have now?

Their number two priority is passing a Paid Family Leave program that will give the workforce we do have 12 weeks — three months – of taxpayer financed paid time off every year, which is the opposite of helping to solve this problem. (The logic here being that we can attract more workers to Vermont provided we make it so they don’t actually have to show up for work.)

The mindset of the Democratic supermajorities seems to be if they pour enough of our tax dollars into these programs the workers will somehow materialize, either attracted directly by the salaries of working for these programs or indirectly for the benefits of participating in them. But the evidence is in that this is not a winning strategy.

According to USPS change of address data compiled by Forbes, the top five states people are leaving are California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. For the most part, deep blue states with generous benefits and expansive government programs. These are states that look in terms of politics and policy a lot like Vermont.

The top five states people are moving to are Texas, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. These are all red states with low taxes and “right to work” laws.

Among other lessons that can be learned from this, there is not a trend of climate refugees fleeing north to escape Global Warming. Migration is generally headed in the other direction.

Lack of workers is a real problem for Vermont’s economy both for today and in the future. It is a root problem. Fixing this should be the number one priority for our elected officials because without people to do the work the greatest ideas in the world won’t amount to anything.

There’s an old joke about an economist stranded on a desert island with a can of beans that needs opening. Asked how to do it, he replies, “Let’s assume we have a can opener.” Asked to solve a problem, our legislature says, “Let’s assume we have a labor force.” We don’t. Unfortunately, this isn’t a joke.

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Categories: Commentary

7 replies »

  1. Great. There is neither the manpower, money (forget the nonsense low cost estimates) or infrastructure to power this utopia. What could go wrong?

  2. Assuming we could find enough people to fill all the jobs, where would they live? Don’t we have a housing shortage?

    • Yes and there’s a bill proposed to retain 50% of the land in Vermont to no development. Apparently, they don’t realize that home building requires available land. We are not hiring the best and brightest for the legislature.

  3. Rob’s point about the thousands of people needed to operate the Clean Heat Standard to drive our fuel dealers out of business is really deadly. Our legislators – the majority party – are living in some kind of Looney Tunes world .

  4. The great employment exodus started in 2020. Mandates and businesses that did not recover after the lockdowns left many people unemployed. Many unemployed are not even counted, making the real rate of unemployment 15% or higher. Many will not return to work due to mandates, staff shortages, low wages (after all the deductions, take-home pay doesn’t make it worth the bother,) and wokeness policies forced upon employees. (CRT is not only in the school system) I hear many talk about lazy people who sit on their couches and don’t want to work. The other side of the story is there are many people who are done working for a corrupt system. They will not be forced to play Russian roulette with their health. They will not play along with the alphabet soup equity nonsense. They will not do the work of three people and get the rate of pay for one. Benefits? Benefits to whom? Paying health insurance premiums for healthcare that is no longer about health. 401K? 401K money is gambling in a leveraged stock market casino with little to no guarantee of return. By the time you get to retirement, you are nearly half dead and have to work part time to keep up anyway. The incentive to work is no longer there after all is said and done. All by design? NWO, WEF, WHO, IMF? There needs to be a big change across the board – particularly the mindset of employers and government alike. The answer appears to be to let it all implode and then maybe, just maybe, the incentive to work with dignity, civility, and mutual respect will return.

  5. According to the Democratic supermajority and Phil Scott, the most important thing to keep in mind for Vermonters is that anyone who questons their lunatic agenda is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe and a xenophobe.. The second most important thing to remember is that they must reelect Democrats and Phil Scott in 2024. Vermonters will oblige.

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