BURLINGTON >> The Vermont economy presents a mixed picture as 2016 begins, more than 300 business leaders were told at a recent conference organized by the Vermont state Chamber of Commerce.
The conference -- which aimed to take a look at where the state was headed economically – had both good news and bad news to offer those who attended it Friday in Burlington.
On the one hand, at 3.7 percent, Vermont has one of the lowest unemployment rates in New England and the nation. That's down a full percentage point from three years ago. But that seemingly good number masks several longer term trends that left unresolved, could spell trouble in the not distant future.
Art Woolf, an economics professor at UVM and a former state economist in the Kunin Administration said the state faced a declining labor force coupled with a demographic challenge.
That's showing up first in a slowdown in the growth of jobs, Woolf said.
"The important thing here is that yes, the number of jobs has been increasing over the last couple of years, but our growth rate has been well below the U.S. average," he said. "The U.S. economy has been generating jobs at a faster rate than Vermont."
Not only that but, the number of workers is declining as well, he said. How the state will continue to be able to grow jobs when there aren't enough workers to fill them, is a huge unanswered question at the moment. It's the biggest problem facing the state's economy. It's not a sudden short term problem either, but one that has been evident for about 15 years. Meanwhile the state's total population has hit a wall as well, flattening out at around 625,000 people.
"Today there are essentially the same number of people in Vermont that there were 5 years ago," he said. "The reality is that is cause for alarm, not just worry, but alarm."
That helps explain part of the decline in the states's labor force as well. But there's more – the demographic and population trends are also not favorable. There's been a decline in the number of Vermonters in the prime working age cohort of 25-64 year olds. Over the next 15 years, the state will be get older and grayer, and while some workers may continue in the work force, many will be retiring out of it. Immigration, both from overseas and from elsewhere in the country, or an increase in the state's birthrate, will be needed to offset that, he said.
Workers will go where the opportunities are, he said.
Business leaders were challenged to step up to meet the issues presented by the demographic trends and the projected declines in the numbers of potential workers by Bill Shouldice, the CEO of Vermont Teddy Bear, who unveiled a new website –vtfutures.org - to monitor economic indicators and provide information that potential investors and businesspeople will want to know.
The Vermont Futures Project was an initiative developed by several of the state's business leaders to provide data driven information about the state's economic future and opportunities, he told the audience.
The main goal was to position the economy at the center of statewide discussion about the state's future, he said. Better awareness of the influences driving and shaping the state's economy will provide a lift to that dialogue, he added.
The first step in the process was the unveiling of a web page "dashboard" where the leading economic indicators could be quickly obtained and reviewed to measure and track the state's performance, he said.
"It's a tool that can be used by decision makers I business, government and people who are considering making investments in the state of Vermont," he said.
Attendees also heard from three of the state's top political leaders: Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who gave their views of the state's economy as well as their sense of where things were headed in the state legislature as the new session gets underway.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, one of the candidates running to succeed Gov. Shumlin, said there were initiatives the state could take.
"It comes down to dollars and cents," Scott said. "I think that for many, for our youth, we need to offer them some incentives to stay, prioritize some of those incentives for them – create some affordable housing, some thing that's of limited supply in Vermont and also making sure we treat businesses the way we would like to be treated.
Economic and population growth should be a priority, said Betsy Bishop, the executive director of the state chamber of commerce.
"We need to do that by accepting that and saying as a state, we want to grow, because we need to grow," she said. "I'm of the belief we need more people first, which will help businesses fill those jobs and expand and grow economically as well. If we do that, it will solve some of our budget problems as a state, it fills out some of our southern Vermont counties – we really need to think about that."