Turner: six ways to get Vermonters working

by Don Turner

Workforce woes aren’t new to Vermont — but COVID-19 has made them worse. And our low unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story. There are nearly 25,000 fewer Vermonters in the workforce then there were just before COVID-19 hit. The number of unemployed Vermonters hasn’t changed — it’s that thousands of employed Vermonters have left the labor market altogether, despite near record wage growth.

Meanwhile, there are 23,000 open jobs at Vermont businesses according to the U.S. Department of Labor. So, in other words, there are roughly as many open jobs at mom and pop stores, larger companies, farms, and every other type of business in Vermont as there are people who dropped out of the labor force.

Something is drastically wrong with that picture.

Don Turner

In the wake of this crisis, Vermont has an opportunity to rebrand itself as a workforce destination. And while previous efforts to attract workers to our state with incentives are a great start, they don’t do enough to break down barriers to work for those Vermonters who have already left the workforce.

So, let’s give those Vermonters the tools to find meaningful work without the crushing hand of red tape getting in the way.

First, we should temporarily waive any and all occupational licensing fees for low income workers, young workers, veterans and service members (who relocate from state to state more frequently, requiring new licenses), those recovering from substance use disorder, those reentering the workforce after having been incarcerated, and those who were unemployed due to COVID-19. The last thing that the most vulnerable Vermonters need right now is more fees and surcharges to simply find a job.

Second, lets modernize our independent contractor laws to recognize the growth in independent contractors choosing to work from home. Now more than ever, remote work is becoming a lasting reality. But Vermont’s laws on the books make it harder to hire independent contractors who are far more likely to work from home. They’re also more likely to be disabled and cannot work in a traditional office environment. By simply cutting red tape, we can make it easier for these workers to match with Vermont businesses.

Third, we should make it easier for those who recently moved to Vermont by recognizing work experience. Many occupations might not have been regulated by another state, but are regulated by Vermont. So, for example, a new Vermonter could have worked for 20 years in an occupation that their old state didn’t license–but because Vermont does license it they, now have to go through all the hoops and red tape as if they’ve never done the job before. We should recognize these new Vermonters’ work experience and give them a leg up.

Fourth, let’s recognize that not all folks learn the same way. Some are better at learning through books and studying, while others prefer hands-on learning. Right now, Vermont’s occupational licensing laws only accommodate the first path. By allowing Vermonters who have completed a registered apprenticeship program to count their effort towards the educational requirements for their field, we can help Vermonters who prefer to learn on the job.

Fifth, let’s actually take some meaningful steps to expand workforce housing. By cutting red tape in Act 250, easing other permitting processes, and expanding priority housing projects, we can—and must—increase the supply of workforce housing in Vermont.

Finally, Vermont needs to continue to accept new Americans and press the Biden Administration to allow more refugee resettlement in our state. Our rich history of Italians and French Canadians immigrating to communities like Barre and St. Albans has formed the fabric of the cultural diversity that defines our state, and is echoed by contemporary resettlements in cities like Winooski. These new, prospective members of our workforce and communities are invaluable.

We’re at a crossroads as to whether we’ll continue to bury our heads in the sand and treat our demographic and workforce trends as fate, or whether we’ll do something about it. Let’s recognize that this is an issue that impacts all Vermonters, and put aside party lines to take meaningful steps to address our workforce shortage.

The author is a Milton Realtor, fire department member, Town Manager, and former Minority Leader in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Categories: Commentary

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4 replies »

  1. The state needs to include protections for unvaccinated telecommuters from being terminated. As many of these individuals work for companies that hold federal contracts. I have read the guidelines and telecommuters who do not engage with the public or workplace are exempt, according to the guidelines put forth by the Biden administration. The state will never recoup the tax revenue from overly zelous companies that choose to terminate telecommuters that are rightfully exempt from the mandate. Just a thought, as the state worked hard to attract these individuals.

  2. Why does everyone dance around the mandates? End the crippling government “health” mandates and watch the populace grow, be healthy, be happy, and work…

  3. Why not require unemployed be required to work at a paying job to receive any state or federal aid or assistance. Solves two problems.

  4. Yes, deregulate for in-business as well as remote employment. Many, if not most, of our regulations are frivolous attempts by legislators to appear relevant.

    But stay out of the substance abuse game. That should be left to each employer’s judgement of each applicant.

    Housing is a supply-demand issue – it will work itself out.

    And as long as prospective ‘new American’ employees are, indeed, legally in this country, fine. But accommodating illegal immigrants will only exacerbate the breakdown in our rule of law.

    But the primary incentives missing in this set of recommendations include School Choice and taxation.

    School Choice is a proven incentive for real estate development. Towns with School Choice create a draw for family investment, both in housing and business.

    And then there are taxes – need I say more. It’s a matter of being competitive. Vermont is in the top ten of highest taxed States according to yesterday’s report by the Tax Foundation. And it will get worse under the new Build Back Better framework. When prospective employees have a choice between VT and NH, for example, the incentives to work and live in NH are obvious. And it’s the reason people are moving to Florida too.

    Unless our legislators get their collective heads out of their rectums, political sloganeering aside, Vermont’s clear advantages, its beautiful countryside and centralized location to major urban areas (Boston, NYC, Hartford, Springfield, Albany and Montreal), will be more than offset by their continuing self-righteous political idiocy.