Politically Thinking: Vermont needs young, skilled residents

The aging of Vermont’s population is a well-known finding from the 2010 U.S. Census. Vermont has the second-oldest population of any state, behind only Maine. If current trends continue, Vermont could well be the oldest state in the nation by 2020.
Between 2000 and 2010, Vermont’s overall population grew by 2.8 percent. The fastest-growing age groups during this period were 55-to-64, which grew by 58 percent, and 65-to-74, which grew by 22 percent. The two groups that declined the most were 35-to-44, down by 23 percent, and 5-to-17, down by 14 percent. These population trends have implications for health care, education, and employment policy.
As more of Vermont’s population moves into the over-60 age groups that are the heaviest consumers of health care services, demand for health care will increase. Does the state’s health care system have the capacity to meet this demand? Many Vermont physicians are at or close to retirement age, so recruiting a new generation of medical professionals to Vermont is essential. As the state reforms its health care delivery and payment systems, what incentives can be provided to ensure that Vermont continues to be an attractive place in which to practice medicine?
With an increasing share of Vermont’s population eligible for Medicare, how will Medicare be integrated with the health benefit exchanges and other new systems that are being established by state government as part of health care reform? Will a state health care plan, or existing private and employer plans, provide supplementary coverage for older Vermonters who want insurance for prescription drugs and other services that fall within the gaps in Medicare?
The census trends — a decline in both the student (5-to-17) and parent (35-to-44) age groups — show that the decrease in K-12 enrollment in Vermont’s schools is likely to accelerate in the years ahead. In many of Vermont’s smaller communities, elementary school enrollment may fall below “critical mass” levels in the next decade. These demographic trends will place more pressure on school boards to consider both multi-age classrooms and sharing services and resources with neighboring towns, if not full-fledged regional elementary school districts.
Some young people may be leaving Vermont, and thus contributing to the advancing age of the population, because they do not have the job skills the state’s employers are seeking. Research by Jeffrey Carr of the New England Economic Partnership — one of the economists who prepare economic and revenue forecasts for Vermont’s governor and legislature — shows that Vermont employers report a mismatch in skills between the positions they have available and the qualifications of applicants.
There are good jobs available in Vermont, but increasingly these positions require focused technical and professional skills for which the state’s educational system may not be preparing its graduates. Vermont employers may be more willing to hire a middle-aged person with these skills, who has work experience and wants to relocate to Vermont from out of state, than a recent Vermont graduate.
Gov. Shumlin has given several speeches in which he has urged the state’s high schools, community and technical colleges, the Vermont State Colleges, and the University of Vermont to increase the emphasis placed on education in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If more Vermont 18-to-24-year-olds can demonstrate high qualifications in STEM subjects, they will be more likely to be hired for the increasing number of technical jobs available in the state. Retaining this young, highly skilled cohort in Vermont will also help, over the long run, to redress the demographic imbalances in the state’s population.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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