Opinion: UVM deserves support as an economic driver
There is an urgent need for Vermont to figure out how to develop ways the state can grow its declining labor force. Without the 10,000 new workers that we need every year, between now and 2040, to replace those leaving the work force through retirement or just leaving Vermont for greener pastures, the state will continue on its slow economic decline.
The warnings are everywhere: our state’s population is stagnant; the median age of the state’s residents is now the second oldest in the nation at 42.6 years; and, with fewer wage earners, the cost of living in Vermont is rising, making it increasingly difficult to invest in and support essential services.
Editorial writers and other Vermont opinion leaders are now urging new strategies to create economic development opportunities. Some, like Emerson Lynn, publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, support a proposal to radically revamp the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. It is his opinion, that the scatter-shot efforts that we now do in the name of economic development are not productive.
The idea here is that by turning over the work of commerce to a non-governmental agency, all of Vermont’s diverse efforts at the regional and local level would be brought under one roof, with clear goals and accountability.
Another idea is to make available non-political and no-spin economic data for policy-makers on a regular basis, so that they will keep their focus on rigorously measuring results, and not making empty promises. This is a goal of the Vermont Futures Project, on which I serve as a board member.
The Legislature’s two Appropriations Committees are now poring over the details of Gov. Scott’s Fiscal Year 2020 $6.1 billion State Budget proposal. As it is budget time at the Statehouse, the time is ripe for their consideration of innovative economic development ideas and proposals.
There is not much visibility to this important legislative work. These meetings usually attract little or no media attention because of the often-tedious deliberations. As a result, Vermont citizens must make their own effort to get behind the numbers.
My own view is that one of the hidden economic engines for Vermont has been and still is the University of Vermont. Some new figures released this week by the university tell a compelling story.
UVM is a critical partner for fueling the state’s economic future. UVM contributes $1.33 billion annually in direct and indirect economic activity for Vermont. UVM and its partner, the University of Vermont Medical Center, are now the state’s largest employer.
On an annual basis, UVM “imports” $136 million in grants and contracts, mostly from out-of-state sources. Of the total UVM student body of nearly 13,400, over 90 percent of the graduates are employed, or continuing their education in graduate school within six months after graduation. Importantly, 61 percent of in-state graduates and 26 percent of out-of-state graduates stay and work in Vermont. This is a meaningful way to build Vermont’s future workforce, assuming there are jobs available. Additionally, 33,614 UVM alumni live and work in the state and provide a substantive educated foundation upon which to build. Many of these graduates can and do contribute to Vermont’s educated work force and many have built their own businesses, employing others.
Yet, as far as state spending is concerned, higher education, which includes the Vermont State Colleges, was allocated only 1.52 percent of the governor’s $6.1 billion budget proposal.
On Monday, the chair of the UVM Board of Trustees, David Daigle, announced that it had selected a sole finalist as UVM’s new president. He is Suresh Garimella, Ph.D., of Purdue University, the executive vice president for Research and Partnerships.
Professor Garimella will be in Vermont next week to meet faculty and state leaders. The Purdue professor of mechanical engineering is being recruited to replace UVM President Tom Sullivan, who will be retiring from that post in June, after a very successful run of seven years.
As president, Tom Sullivan has been an articulate voice and steadfast advocate of UVM’s role in creating a dynamic Vermont economy. Sullivan has also been a strong proponent of the liberal arts, too. It would appear the UVM trustees want to continue the role of UVM as a positive force for the Vermont economy in post-Sullivan years.
I recognize that setting budget priorities is a key, and complex, job for the Vermont Legislature. There are many groups and other state agencies advocating for their own piece of the budget pie. That said, the Legislature should take a critical eye to the governor’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal and should advocate new investments in UVM because it is a powerful economic driver for Vermont.
Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury has been a stalwart advocate for a healthy Vermont economy and is a 1964 UVM graduate.
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