Commentary | Keelan: Is it possible to focus on just one issue?

The Dec. 18 Wall Street Journal reported that manufacturers in the U.S have over 400,000 open positions and that there are nine million men in the 25 to 54 age group that are not working.

Here in Vermont, our Legislative leaders, special interest groups, and leaders from the Administration make announcements of what they believe are the most important issues facing the state. The list ranges from opioid addiction, climate change, the pollution of Lake Champlain, the need for a carbon tax, education funding reform (and spending), legalization of marijuana, and a single payer health care system. These are important issues. However, attempting to deal with them shifts the focus from what is the most critical state-wide issue — the shrinking Vermont work force.

This phenomenon is subtle and difficult to track, and we are now witnessing its ramifications. The most obvious is the constant litany from employers that they have an untold number of jobs that they are unable to fill — in manufacturing, agriculture, retail, tourism, and health care - from entry-level to advanced positions. Another area that is suffering is the nonprofit/municipal sector. They have unfilled board seats, and programs cancelled due to a lack of volunteers. And in many towns there is the discussion of transitioning to paid fire/rescue services. And then, of course, there is the huge decline in state personal income taxes that depends on wage earners.

This, coupled with many high-income retirees leaving the state for places that have no income/estate taxes, only compounds the revenue problem for the state.

The fact that we have a shrinking work force did not happen overnight - there are many parts to it and, if focused on, we can reverse the migration as well as attract out-of-state employees. But first, those who are in charge must be convinced that this issue is the one that needs immediate and constant attention.We must begin to make living in Vermont affordable for young people.

One way of doing this is to provide a period of time — five years — where they are not subject to Vermont income taxes and possibly to local real estate taxes. An additional incentive would be for the state to provide free child care for a limited period of time.

Another incentive would be in the area of housing. The state has approved a $35 million bond program for such housing, but much more is needed. Additional incentives could be for the state to create a financing agency that would lend funds for the new employee's down payment and closing costs. Also, look into providing a rental subsidy for the first three years of residing in Vermont.

It has been noted that Vermont's younger generation is leaving the state. However, there is a large percentage of that generation which resides here, but for one reason or another - usually for illegal drug use, petty crimes, or lack of needed skills — they are no longer employable. This segment of the population cannot be ignored. If their behavior can be changed, they could be a big part of the solution and it, too, will require state funding and involvement on a huge scale.

These young adults are not only sidelined from the workplace, they are major consumers of welfare and healthcare funds, housing, child care, and legal expenditures paid by the state.

Vermont is fortunate that so many companies stay here for a host of reasons. What should not be taken for granted is that they will continue to do so.

The state Chamber of Commerce recently reported that 10,000 new employees are needed. I would urge those in government nonprofits, and special interest groups to table what they believe are important issues and focus on how we bring to Vermont the resources state employers desperately need — employees willing to work and live here.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington


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