Priorities for 2017 - with more to follow

November 28, 2016

   There will be much to do when the legislature convenes in January. Uncertainty about the Trump administration's policies will mean a lot in a tiny state such as ours. In addition we will have a new Speaker, and it may take some weeks to establish our relationship with Governor Phil Scott. Regardless of what the new administrations have in store, we have our work cut out for us.

     

     Against this background I will be working on several priorities of great importance to Vermont's economy. Among them are 1. Substantially increasing support for postsecondary education, 2. Providing enhanced timely workforce education and training, and 3. Developing high skilled high paying jobs to employ Vermonters who want to stay here and raise a family. 

 

     Vermont has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, yet the proportion of those who go on to earn a postsecondary degree remains one of the lowest in the nation. Among the stumbling blocks are cost, low aspiration rates and a lack of awareness of how much difference further education can improve one's life. It is true that community college, technical or a four year college are beyond the reach of many families. Unfortunately state support for our state colleges has dwindled from nearly 50% several decades ago to a shameful 17% today.

 

     Community College of Vermont, among others, offers certificate programs in many areas, any one of which can become a stepping stone to a productive fulfilling career. Credits earned at CCV are transferable to any of the other Vermont State Colleges, but students need to get their foot in the door and start on a career path. That's why substantially increasing support for postsecondary education is a necessary first step.

    

      Next, improving workforce development and training needs to be the second step. There area many types of training available here and there, yet they are poorly coordinated and tend to answer to the squeaky wheel rather than the needs of employers as a whole. Somewhat cynically it could be said that's what available now is "spot treatment" - clean the grease stain without washing or redesigning the whole garment. What is needed is an integrated systemic approach that meets the needs of contemporary businesses and that trains men and women to gain new skills while adapting to the realities of changing employment and globalization. Many great Vermont businesses are hungry to expand yet can't find enough employees to do so.

 

     Finally, there's job creation. Government is typically not very good at picking winners and losers. That is, in a general sense, economic development is best left to entrepreneurs who run with a great idea and build a business around it. Yet there is much Vermont state government can do to see to it that entrepreneurs have the support they need to succeed. During the Great Recession, a lot of effort went to keeping existing businesses afloat, lest they close and their jobs be lost. Yet the greatest jump in new jobs comes not from established business that want to expand but from startups. And startups are born of innovation. 

 

     Innovation is rarely taught; it comes from the right set of circumstances. Among them are curiosity and knowledge of a problem to be solved, the intellectual tools to address the problem and the belief that state government will stand behind, not in the way of, support going forward. Vermont has a number of programs and tax incentives that help businesses and create jobs. But as a small state, we cannot compete with New York and the southern states that spend great sums to lure businesses to locate there. Nonetheless, studies have shown those state and local expenditures do not necessarily equate to the net economic gains that are claimed. 

 

     What should Vermont do? We can start with robust support for postsecondary education, creating and building a more useful and integrated workforce development system and combining those with strong support for job creation in all regions of the state. By necessity the latter will include access to capital, peer support, easy to negotiate permits, and a tax structure that is fair and easy to comprehend. We don't need to back off on environmental protection or give away the farm, we just need to work together.

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