Worker shortage due to pandemic, pot, depopulation

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. 

FCIDC Executive Director Tim Smith

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. 

Categories: Business

13 replies »

  1. However, as I’ve previously mentioned, marijuana can be valuable as a medicine. Doing too much is a problem. I myself use a miniscule , fi not infinitesimal, amount compared to what many people utilize.
    Such reduced amounts are safe and also not very profitable to the business.

  2. Marijuana has been used by humanoids since the dawn of recorded history and like most “intoxicating” substances, can be used responsibly or abused to the point of debilitation.
    What is recent is all the pandemic panic giveaways on top of the bountiful, pre-existing cornucopia of inducements to not being a productive, contributing member of society. When the enhanced-rules unemployment paychecks, the free stimulus booty and the free hotel room program comes to an end, only then will the help wanted signs in every business in Vermont start to come down. The bottom line is that the left favors a victimhood-based society and those on the conservative end of the spectrum favor a merit-based society. The detrimental and corrupting aspects of a victim-based, socialist way of running government is rearing it’s ugly head in many aspects of societal decay and proliferation of corruption and misplaced entitlement. Stop giving away free stuff…problem solved.

    • Rich Lapelle; Thank you for your common sense view of cannabis.
      However, You also fail to grasp that the concept of “socialism” itself is being abused. You might want to check out the Mises Institute.
      Giving workers a fair share of profits is not the same as govt. running everything.
      That being said, the handouts are money created out of air. A return to the pre-Reagan policies allows scope for needed social programs, maintenance of infrastructure, etc.
      But the danger right now is, indeed, a leftist, Marxist power structure. Look at VT’s legislative bodies. How many have relatively recently migrated to the state? The allowing of non-citizens to vote. The vote given to 16 year olds.
      There is a complex, convoluted pattern here.
      I have an Invisible/Hidden Disability which has driven me to SSI, which situation I never expected to last this long. My story is, among other things, indicative of systemic failures in our medicine, welfare system, etc. Ad admittedly, this took place in other regions, not in VT. Who in their right mind would want to remain at such a level if there was a viable alternative?
      At his time I’ve carefully examined what is happening here in VT. Hours and hours, days and nights researching.
      I wish that I had the money to move from VT. It’s that bad.
      I have some documentation that things are even worse than they appear. Because I’m hyperactive, undereducated, and socially marginal, my opinions are written off. Some individuals whom I’ve approached are aware of the facts, and don’t care or are openly supportive of it all.

      • It’s curious that you reference the Mises Institute. If you have some time on your hands (which you apparently do), spend it wisely (as you would any money you may have), and read Ludwig Von Mises’ analysis of Socialism.

        “Capitalist society is the realization of what we should call economic democracy… When we call a capitalist society a consumers’ democracy, we mean that the power to dispose of the means of production, which belongs to the entrepreneurs and capitalists, can only be acquired by means of the consumers’ ballot, held daily in the market-place.”

        It will, I suspect, be considerable time (if not money) well spent by you, and anyone else caring to learn the economic and sociological effects of free markets, as compared to socialism, or any personal permutation thereof one might harbor. Afterall, it is this kind of instruction that is so lacking in our public education system, which explains the chaotic misunderstandings so prevalent in today’s political discussion.

      • Also, Mr. Eshelman: I receive SSI. I do better than most people would as I truly prefer to live simply and must eat simply as food and exercise are my medicines. This is borne out clinically.
        I anguish over the plight of a single parent living on $36,000 a year.

  3. I worked for Bombardier in Barre for almost 21 years. It was quite a thing for Governor Snelling to get them to locate here in Vermont. Those were good paying jobs that allowed people to buy houses, cars, and in general have a little higher standard of living. Sure it was up, and down as is contractual manufacturing, you realize it, and make adjustments to allow for it. When Bombardier decided to close up shop on this side of the lake, and consolidate their operation in Plattsburgh, what did the Governor at that time do to try to entice them to stay ? Nothing ! I remember more attention being given to mom, and pop, machine tool companies in Springfield that closed their doors, than that given to Bombardier that employed upwards of 900 people at one point. There has been a general disdain for big business in the State of Vermont since the 90s. The more left leaning the power base, the more they seem to view upwardly mobile Vermonters as a threat that they need to keep under their thumb . Manufacturing, and other good paying jobs seem to scare Vermont politicians. The possibility of Vermonters actually bettering our station in life seems to threaten their position. It seems that all we should be allowed to pursue in this state is service sector jobs, small, quaint, politically correctly agricultural operations, and tourist oriented employment. What really sucks about the whole thing is that it is evidently okay with the electorate, as we keep voting these oppressors into office.

    • Patrick, you hit that nail squarely when you stated that there is an agenda with Vermont demoprogs to keep as many middle class working people from doing well, and hanging on the doorstep of unemployment and subsequently poverty and dependence on “government”. Upwardly mobile Vermonters as well as the Vermont and US Constitution are seen by leftists as an impediment to their social justice agenda…yet even in the anonymity of the voting booth a majority of us still shamelessly keep them in power. It defies all rational explanation other than that “you cant compete with Santa Clause” and Ummericans will vote for whomever promises them a bigger slice of the public treasury based on their real or perceived victimhood status. This will not end well. Elections have dire consequences.

      • Rich Lapelle; I myself am a “leftist”, sort of. The way things have gone in this country is frightening, horrifying. I have an invisible disability, borne out by clinical evidence. Three times have been in immediate danger of losing my life, once not as immediate. Having faced a corrupt system, empowered by greed and laziness, I understand what happens when even medicine is co-opted by the drive of the ultra-wealthy to realize profits, and the arrogance of petty individuals to control others.
        This isn’t free enterprise.
        My goal in life was to find a job in construction. The disability crushed it, decades ago.
        For 34 years I’ve done community work of my own devising and mostly out of my own pocket. The world is complex, and surface appearances are just that. Things have a depth beyond simple appearances.
        But VT is in terrible trouble. I happen to know.

    • “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” T. S. Eliot

  4. The drug testing for pot interfering with construction company’s ability to find qualified workers was not unknown to our legislators before they commercialized it. It was part of materials that were shared with all of them in August just before the commericialization vote took place in September. Colorado contstruction leaders openly shared this in April of 2018 as part of Marijuana X, a documentary that shared many Colorado leaders’ warnings.

  5. Why are we turning willing and desperate workers and refugees away when we clearly need them? No, white people in VT are not grateful for $18/hr factory jobs. This has been true long before marihuana legalization. The reason Winooski manufacturers have been successful is because they have encouraged and accommodated the dark skinned people as employees. How about dealing with systemic racism, a declining population, and becoming a state that prefers wealthy second home owners over the working class. Blaming pot and the reality that educated white people do not want to work the 3rd shift is actually funny.

    • “Systemic racism” has become a buzzword. There are other factors. People with roots here are aware that even $18 isn’t such good money. Nontheless, maybe many of those who would work gladly take those jobs already have. How many unskilled workers in VT are unemployed?

      • That $18 per hour is or isn’t good money (equivalent to $36,000 per year plus benefits) depends entirely on how it is spent in the marketplace. Skilled or unskilled, the mere desire to work at all is a valuable commodity worth the rate these days.

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