Editorial: Federal aid + disruption = opportunity
The Addison County economy has a problem that the influx of millions of dollars in one-time federal pandemic aid won’t solve: a shortage of workers.
Area businesses in almost every sector are begging for skilled and unskilled help, and often-times coming up empty handed. (See story Page 1A.) It’s a problem that will drastically slow, if not derail, the economic rebound we are all so eager to embrace. The hospitality industry, in particular, is scrambling to find workers so they can ramp back up to full operation this summer, but that industry isn’t alone. All of the building trades (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, landscaping, earth moving, you name it) are desperate for more help as well.
Why the worker shortage? It’s not easy to define, but here are a few of the most obvious causes:
• Demographic trends have seen a declining number of younger people living in Vermont (whether that is lower birth rates or younger families moving out of the state) for the past 20 years; while Vermont’s population has grown in the over-60 demographic, that’s not the cohort that makes up the workforce.
• It could be that extended unemployment programs are keeping people from moving back into the workforce out of sheer necessity, but no one is getting rich off unemployment and any able-bodied person is able to make far more being employed if they are able. We all must realize the pandemic remains at a high point in Vermont despite the fact that almost 50% of the population has received at least one vaccine shot. As the state approaches 60% vaccination later this month, the rate of new cases of the virus should drop dramatically — that will help open up the economy even more, but businesses will still need applicants willing to work.
• The pandemic also caused a major disruption in the economy and many positions have changed due to remote working practices and other life-changing factors. It may take a while for that transition to work itself through the economy.
• Yet another reason is that women were disproportionately taken out of the workforce when schools went to remote learning. Until schools return to in-class learning five days a week, there’s a significant portion of the workforce that can’t reasonably return to full- or even part-time work.
What’s to be done to mitigate that labor shortage?
In the short-term, Gov. Phil Scott was right to appeal for an influx of refugees into the state, and he should keep making the appeal that Vermont has ample jobs and is a welcoming community.
More productive would be getting our schools back to five-day in-house learning. That would allow parents of students to return to the workforce as soon as possible. That, however, can only be done after teachers and staff are fully vaccinated, and as the state proceeds to vaccinate as many middle-and-high school students as possible. We’re getting close, but with schools nearing the semester’s end and the summer lull coming, parents might be hesitant to re-enter the workforce until school restarts in the fall. Incentives may need to be put in place to prompt a faster re-entry into the workplace.
Other solutions are more difficult to come by. We need more affordable housing for workers who do come to the state; we need more avenues that offer skilled training for today’s labor force — a labor force in the trades that can, by the way, make in $40,000 to $60,000 in the first few years, with master technicians doubling that as an annual salary. To that end, we need a whole new conversation among families and the community, as well as in the schools, about the opportunities two-year higher-education programs provide.
The challenges facing the state are many, but so are the opportunities. In Middlebury alone, the feds just gifted the town $2.57 million dollars in one-time aid through President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, while the Addison Central School District will receive $3.14 million. Other towns and school districts in the county received similar packages based on population.
Which brings up the central question: How do we use those millions to reinvigorate the economy and do so within the COVID-19 parameters?
The good news is that towns and schools have until the end of 2024 to spend the money, which means they can thoughtfully target the spending to make lasting changes. The challenge is that the most significant problems facing Addison County, and much of rural Vermont, are not just associated with the pandemic. Rather, they are long-standing issues that require structural changes if we’re going to turn the tide.
How to approach that with the funding available is worthy of a different approach in planning: a corporate approach that analyzes the issue, drafts a step-by-step plan to achieve a desired outcome, and then follows through by holding to account those responsible.
Addison County is teeming with highly competent people who could take this issue by the horns and lead the county’s revival. To that end, the first step is to seek broader community engagement outside of the existing school and town boards — those boards will have their hands full just meeting the day-to-day needs. An outside board would be charged with bringing new ideas to the table, even disruptive ones, to combat the county’s economic lethargy. We need a economy, and social engagement, that is not just comfortable, but exciting enough to attract a younger set of entrepreneurs eager to invest in a community they can call their own. That’s the goal.
We have some welcome seed money to get started; let’s use it wisely.
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