Vermont’s next governor will grapple with a workforce shortage. How much can they do to fix it?
There are about 20,000 fewer people working or seeking work in Vermont compared to the months before the pandemic, and the state’s aging population means the number of people able to work in health care, the trades, food service and more could be strained for years to come.
So how might the two major party candidates running for governor tackle this issue? And how much power does a governor really have to grow the state’s workforce?
To answer those questions, let’s first dig into the problem: Why did so many people leave the workforce during the pandemic?
“You have older workers that are retiring, you have people for whom at any age, working is higher risk if it involves a lot of interpersonal contact,” explained Tom Kavet, the state Legislature’s economist. “People also needed to stay out of the workforce in order to care for a child, [or] care for an elderly relative.”
About 10,000 people have joined the workforce since the state hit a low point in late 2020. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has dropped to a historic low of 2.1%. That means there are few people looking to fill the thousands of jobs that are still vacant.
Even if every Vermonter who’s seeking a job right now got one, the state would still have 16,000 open positions. That’s according to Kevin Chu, the head of the Vermont Futures Project, an offshoot of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce that advocates for growing the state’s workforce. So how do you fix that problem?
“The number one thing is we need more people,” Chu said.
On this point, Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic nominee Brenda Siegel agree. But they differ in their strategies to grow the workforce. So let’s look at their approaches, starting with Gov. Scott.
Gov. Phil Scott's approach
Over his six years as governor, Scott’s most impactful action to address the workforce shortage has been to talk about it, said Dustin Degree, Scott’s deputy Commissioner of Labor.
“I think the most important thing the governor has done is really raise this issue to the top of the flagpole,” Degree said.
The state’s looming workforce problems have been a favored topic of Scott’s since his first day in office in 2017, Degree said, at a time when few other Vermont politicians were talking about the issue.
“I think the most important thing the governor has done is really raise this issue to the top of the flagpole."Dustin Degree, Deputy Commissioner of Labor
“We must have a laser-focus on attracting and retaining working-age people,” Scott said in his inaugural address. “If we do, we can rebuild our workforce.”
A few months later, Scott signed a bill that included a $37 million bond for affordable housing projects. Degree pointed to that as an early accomplishment of the governor’s to make the state more affordable for more workers.
Degree also noted the administration’s efforts to entice more National Guard members to the state by subsidizing their college tuition. And this year, Scott has used his platform to push for more high school students to pursue careers in the trades, arguing there are high-paying jobs to be had as welders, plumbers and electricians.
Degree said the administration is trying to reverse some of the stigma around those careers.
“We know that there are great jobs out there that need to be filled, that you can get right to work with the education and training you get out of high school, out of the tech center,” Degree said.
One other workforce initiative of the Scott era: A controversial program that paid nearly $2 million to over 400 people from outside the state to move to Vermont.
Degree was quick to point out that that program originated with Democratic legislators.
In a new term, Degree said the administration would continue its focus on the trades, and push once again for the state to eliminate taxes on military pensions, which it argues could attract more working-age veterans to Vermont.
Brenda Siegel's approach
Scott's challenger, Brenda Siegel, has never held elected office, so she doesn’t have a comparative record. When asked about the workforce shortage, she focused on two of her signature campaign issues.
“We can't solve our workforce shortage unless we address, meaningfully address, child care and housing,” Siegel said.
“We can't solve our workforce shortage unless we address, meaningfully address, child care and housing.”Brenda Siegel, Democratic nominee for governor
The challenge, Siegel argued, is not attracting people to Vermont. That’s already happening: The state saw an influx of newcomers during the pandemic.
“There are jobs here that are attracting people to our state,” Siegel said. “But they can't stay, because they don't have anywhere to live.”
To address the housing crisis, Siegel said she’d push for more investment in affordable housing and emergency housing programs. She would also push to rehabilitate older housing stock, and put stricter regulations on short-term rentals like Airbnb.
In addition, Siegel said she wants to see more state funding for child care, and she supports a paid family and medical leave program, something Scott vetoed multiple times.
“Our families need things like mandatory paid family and medical leave to be passed and signed,” Siegel said. They need benefits, they need wages that they can sustain, and we need to support our businesses in making those things happen.”
Along with other state-funded supports, like universal school meals, Siegel argued her proposals will better enable the state to support new workers, as well as those who are already here.
Gov. Scott has questioned the price of Siegel’s plans, estimating they’d cost the state over $500 million. Siegel counters that her proposals would save money in the long run.
Limitations of the office
Regardless of their policy positions, Tom Kavet, the Legislature’s economist, said either candidate will face a harsh reality: A governor simply doesn’t have the power to unilaterally grow the state’s workforce.
“If we need more workers, there's a very easy way to get more workers, but it's not a state policy decision,” Kavet said.
That decision, he said, rests with the federal government and how many international immigrants it chooses to let into the U.S.
“We are one of the few countries in the world who could have as many workers of whatever education level [and] skill set as we choose, almost on demand,” Kavet said. “And yet, we've had about 2 million fewer immigrants over the last few years than would otherwise have been expected.”
Kavet said a governor can advocate for more immigrants and refugees to come to Vermont, something both candidates support, but immigration policy is a federal matter.
One more challenge? Persuading Vermonters that the state needs to grow. Kevin Chu with the Vermont Futures Project pointed to a poll conducted this spring by UVM. It asked respondents whether they were “supportive of growing Vermont's population size to strengthen its workforce.” A total of 48% said yes, but a combined 50% either said no or they were unsure.
“If the overwhelming attitudes of our communities are such that we're not welcoming to new people, we're not OK with the idea that population needs to grow, then I don't think we're going to make much progress,” Chu said.
So, whoever’s elected governor will have their work cut out for them: Both to do what they can to entice more people to Vermont, and convince much of the population that it’s a worthwhile thing to do.