There is a lot of evidence to illustrate why workforce development is essential.
Vermont’s job growth rate is below the national average. Colleges have closed with more chances of failing. Employment has declined and not entirely because of COVID. Vermont is the second grayest state in the country and many of our businesses are facing a labor shortage crisis as their skilled workforce retires. Some of our wealthiest retirees are disappearing in Florida, taking their tax dollars and accumulating wisdom with them – a double loss for those of us who remain. Young people are also fleeing the state, mainly for jobs and affordable housing.
Yet there are so many reasons to be optimistic. The data is clear: startups are the primary driver of wealth creation in urban and rural communities, we can broaden our tax base with successful entrepreneurs, and the majority of new jobs are created by small (very small) businesses.
I would like to offer three examples from personal experience that show what I think we are doing well to advance innovation, entrepreneurship and rural and workforce development. If we can learn the lessons of experience and apply them more widely, we are heading towards a stronger economy, a better and more diverse society and a greater tax base for the benefit of all.
The first is Generator, Burlington’s maker space. This 11,000 square foot facility, located in a converted warehouse in Burlington’s South End Creative Corridor, offers seven labs with complete tool sets: woodworking, electronics, metal fabrication, sewing, jewelry, rapid prototyping ( 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC mill) and a computer center.
It offers free high-speed internet connection and organizes classes, training, networking opportunities, lecture series, meetups, mentoring and boot camps for budding entrepreneurs. It’s physically designed to foster collaboration, and happy accidents flow from Generator’s diversity, density, and an engaged learning community.
Over the past seven years, dozens of businesses have started from this facility. This includes some that will likely hit the mainstream, like OVR, which works with a scent added to virtual reality.
Local employers look to Generator for creative talent. Beta Air, for example, has recruited manpower from its members since their early days. Generator has also become a community resource in times of crisis, most recently with the manufacture of personal protective equipment to support essential healthcare workers across the state at the onset of the pandemic.
The second example is the Curtis Fund and McClure Foundation’s effort in collaboration with the Vermont Student Acceptance Corp. and the Community College of Vermont. Their “Pathways to Promising Careers” program provides guidance and funding for underfunded Vermont students of all ages to access training with a “certificate of value” as the final measure of success. These certificates are cumulative and offer short-term pathways to well-paying jobs that advance career, earning capacity and academic progress.
The third model is the workplace learning program at Spaulding High School in Barre. This is directed to a workforce development initiative born from the concept that college is not for everyone, but skills and networking create a bright future. Here, Generator works with high school students as well as their workplace learning coordinators and local employers to train students on the employment and internship opportunities available directly from the high school. Now in its fifth year, the program has become a model that others are looking to build on. The vision is for creation / innovation spaces to be located in many rural high schools, serving students and the community
What have we learned from all of this? Collaboration is powerful; We are better together. Innovation requires resources and the freedom to experiment. Repeated failures should be seen as a prelude to success. Experiential learning, critical thinking, conceptual thinking and hands-on learning are at the heart of any successful start-up. Successful entrepreneurs ensure the growth and relevance of our community, while solving community problems and attracting significant investment beyond the state. As for the cost, private philanthropy and the Vermont Community Foundation provided seed funding. Hopefully state and federal funding will follow.
While I can provide many more examples, here is a brief overview of other factors relevant to workforce development and economic vitality.
We must increase our success by attracting and supporting entrepreneurs, remote workers and their families. For that to happen, we need to craft a winning case as to why Vermont is the best place to live and work.
A reliable statewide internet is essential, otherwise entire segments of our population will be left out of this conversation. We will also not be able to attract new people and new businesses to many of our rural communities.
Reliable and affordable child care is essential, and let’s make sure they have a close eye on early childhood education. Without a solid foundation in Kindergarten to Grade 3 math, for example, our students will struggle to compete in today’s world.
We need to anticipate what will be needed in the future and aim to provide the workforce to fill it: climate change, immigration, automation, elderly care and energy conservation.
Twenty years ago, we didn’t have artificial intelligence, driverless cars, drone delivery, iPhones, Siri, Zooms, or even computers. The first laptop weighed 40 pounds and couldn’t handle more sophisticated games than Pong! And after? What will we need and how can we prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow? One thing you can count on: Change is constant and always presents new opportunities.
The tax system must change, or we will continue to lose our richest to Florida or other more tax-friendly places and limit our ability to attract dynamic new talent to the state. Consider Miami, which has aggressively reached out to Silicon Valley with tax incentives to recruit residents and businesses – and succeeded.
Affordable housing will retain our next generation and attract a more diverse population, both of which contribute to innovation.
We must continue to invest in our recreational and cultural assets across the state. There is no doubt that quality of life, especially as we adjust to more telecommuting, is an important consideration when moving.
Great storytelling matters. We need to build an authentic yet strong narrative that highlights the qualities of the state most appealing to the young, creative and innovative workforce that we must nurture in order for Vermont to thrive.