Last month in an op-ed we sounded the alarm: our state is on the brink of losing an entire generation of young Vermonters. For far too many in our state, workforce skills do not match the opportunities with employers, and the socioeconomic, legal, and medical challenges many face are so entrenched that we will need broad intervention strategies to bring individuals into the formal economy.
The important takeaway is not that Vermont has these challenges, it is that our challenges are not insurmountable if we focus on them and come together to invest in solutions. We are a small state, and while that means that we have limited revenues, it also means that we have the opportunity to be nimble. Consider the following:
Vermont by the Numbers
Children in our K – 12 school system.
College and University students who choose to be here.
Children between the ages of 1 day and 5 years old.
Vermonters currently in our state between the ages of 19 – 25 who have fallen out of the labor market.
High school students who leave school and go on to no further
Two and four year degree students who drop out within three
Additionally, we have a growing demographic of seniors and mature Vermonters who are willing, wanting, in some cases needing to continue to participate in the workforce. In many regions of our state we have new Americans eager to learn and participate in our workforce. And Vermont has always attracted a creative class of entrepreneurs and innovators.
The challenges we face are daunting, and they will require equal measures of leadership, investment, and compassion. And we are not alone in facing these issues; other states, particularly rural states, are facing these same social, economic and demographic realities.
We’ve always proudly said that Vermont is different, and that our people and communities are what make it so. If Vermonters really want our state to be place that we claim it to be, then we need to recognize when action must take the place of rhetoric:
Open and expand Career and Technical Education (CTE) to all 9 through 12 grade students, enabling more students to access its programming.
Create internships and career introductions with Vermont employers to every 2nd through 4th year college and university student attending our state’s institutions of higher education.
Task the Vermont State Colleges and CTE’s to create more 2 year-technical degrees, certificate programs, and work-based training programs designed around labor market and employer needs data.
Create education and training programs that assist our mature workers and seniors to keep contributing to the workforce and remain an ongoing productive part of our workforce.
Systemic/Long Term Actions
Enact full-time, year round, Pre-K and early child learning for every Vermont child up to 5 years old.
Develop, fund and proliferate the implementation of services for helping those Vermonters suffering from addiction to reenter the workforce.
Rethink corrections and prison to train and educate individuals who have been or are incarcerated or paroled for nonviolent crimes.
What is most striking about this list is what makes it so damning: none of the ideas are new. For years we have allowed ourselves to avoid making difficult choices because they cause upheaval within the systems we currently use. Better to bail the boat out for one more year than fix the leak.
If we were to truly and aggressively go after the root cause of our challenges, the greatest long term opportunity for positive social, economic and cultural change is the full investment in universal early childcare and Pre-K for all Vermont children. To do so would likely require a complete redesign of how we provide and think about the K – 16 education delivery model. The financial costs and systemic changes required of such an undertaking are enough to give anyone pause, but we’re already paying the price with our children, our families, and our communities.
Simply scaling the systems already in place can almost guarantee that costs scale in accordance. These solutions will be expensive, and we don’t have the ability to pay for their implementation through brute force. We need to creatively leverage who we are today to solve our challenges for tomorrow. As an example: with a declining K-12 population we have physical and systems infrastructure available for Pre-K, adult learning, and workforce retraining programs. But we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Relatively low-cost solutions are being passed up because they don’t fit with the current small scale ideal.
These types of choices force change. They are uncomfortable. The same shift in delivery that produces the required economies of scale may also shift the face of providers in the market. But we need to be focused on outcomes rather than policies that barely let us scrape by the status quo.
Vermont has dedicated and accessible governmental leadership. The outcome of every legislative session is a culmination of must do’s and want to do’s. We should encourage our state’s governmental leadership, the Governor and Legislative leaders to devote the next legislative session to addressing these issues as must do’s. Our Congressional Delegation is outstanding and they are positioned to support and garner resources for implementation like no other time in Vermont’s history.
Our state’s leaders will need our support and encouragement.
Vermont’s opportunity awaits action. Let’s get to work.
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