Originally published in Business Digest, August 1998

The Lure of Vermont

by Julia Lynam

David Mount David Mount of Western Staff Services in Burlington notes the wage scale might be somewhat lower here, but, he says, "There's a big difference in cost of living between here and New York, Boston or California."

I'm an accidental Vermonter. Born and raised in England, I'd heard of the state only as a place where the Bobbsey Twins enjoyed sugar-on-snow parties. That was until I met a man who said: "I'll take you where the grass if greener," (or words to that effect) and I found myself in the summer of '77 living in Colchester.

But among immigrants to this state I seem to be in the minority. Time and again I meet incomers who've deliberately chosen Vermont, sometimes out of the other 50, sometimes out of the whole world.

Like the non-native black locust trees that abound in Burlington, these incomers bring their gifts and talents. They add variety to Vermont life but no one would want to see them shade out the native maples, oaks and birches in our woodlands.

Incomers come in many shapes, sizes and shades of philosophy. But like Karen Cornish, quoted in this article, they often come with a keen appreciation of the values and qualities of Vermont, and a desire to see them preserved.

Vermont in 1998 is a job seeker's market, with the statewide unemployment rate for June a low 3.5 percent and for Burlington a mere 2.9 percent. This is, effectively, full employment and word is out that there are jobs to be filled. So, are the applicants flocking from far afield in search of Vermont's fabled lifestyle?

"No more than usual" seems to be the answer on the street.

It's a fact of life in Vermont that many people from "outside" want to live here. Every day Burlington recruitment agencies and human resource specialists receive resumes from people who feel the pull of the mountains, lakes and ski slopes and think they'd like to share the rural lifestyle enjoyed in the Green Mountain State.

David Mount of Western Staff Services in Burlington sees his share of out-of-state applicants: "They come in all the time," Mount says, "and the numbers haven't changed much in the past few years. We had a pretty serious recession in '89/'90/'91 and Vermont didn't recover right away." The economy picked up in 1994, he says, and has stayed much the same since then.

"They run the whole gamut," he continues, "engineering, finance, people looking for anything. The biggest difference they find here is the size of the work force; we don't have a lot of room for specialists." One former Washington-based economist Mount tried to place found a difficult market here. "Outside of one or two large companies there's not much demand for that," Mount says. The same goes for illustrators and mainframe computer programmers: "We just don't have that many large mainframe computers, so they either have to change or go elsewhere."

More successful, he says, are job seekers with broad skills like accountants, and those with expertise in Internet applications or small computer networks.

It's that much-touted Vermont quality of life that attracts people, says Mount, and Tim King of Career Networks & ProSearch, also in Burlington, agrees. "Vermont is recognized nationally -- internationally -- as a good place to live," King says, observing that the number of resumes he receives did increase for a while about a year ago when the state and its attractive lifestyle was featured in national media.

The job seekers include people who've vacationed or studied in Vermont and think they'd like to live here, people with friends or family here, people who are looking for a good place to raise their children and people who are seeking a high quality of life, as well as those who just plain like to ski.

Newcomers to the state are not surprised so much by the weather, says King, as by the nature of a professional here: "It's more casual, salaries are low."

Salaries might be lower in Vermont than some other areas, Mount agrees. "But that's less and less the case," he continues, "and the differences tend to be related to cost of living. There's a big difference in cost of living between here and New York, Boston or California. On the other hand, our salaries tend to be better than in the South, but our cost of living is a bit higher, too."

Vermont's per capita income in 1997 was $23,401; that's 91.4 percent of the national average and ranks number 30 in the ranking of all states, fifth among New England states.

But transplants come from all over, says human resource consultant David Palmer; many from New Jersey, New York and Boston, but also from California, even Hawaii, in search of a better quality of life. "They're usually willing to take less money than they've been getting and they're sometimes pleasantly surprised. But it's not as cheap to live in Vermont as some think, especially in the Burlington area," he says.

Palmer confirmed that those who meet with the greatest success are often in technical and computer fields and, he says, electrical engineering. "But we've relocated administrative people and human resource specialists, too," he adds. "It's important to do your research before you make the move," Palmer continues, "or it can be discouraging for both the employee and the employer."

With fewer than 350,000 workers in the state's job pool, employers might have to look out of state when they need a particular specialist, says King, but many are reluctant to be the first stepping stone for someone who might take the job just to get to Vermont, then move on pretty quickly. "And they prefer not to pay relocation," he adds.

A prospective employer will want to be sure that the applicant has actually been to Vermont and knows what it's like here. In the past, says Mount, employers didn't want out- of-staters because they'd stay for a season -- either a summer or a winter -- and then leave. "People do have a more realistic view now," he says. "They're much more educated than the people who came in the '80s and they do understand what the weather is like."

"They need to be ready for winter," King warns, "but the best advice you can give them is to warn them about mud season!"

Big city attitudes don't go down well in a small state, King notes: "But Vermont is a very good place for networking and a lot of people are open to helping a newcomer. You do have to understand, however, that there's a very small population and only a limited amount of territory, so you have to have your act together because you're going to keep meeting the same people. If you're not used to a small city/semi-rural lifestyle, you'll see a difference -- and you don't want people to get the feeling that you have a big-city attitude when you interview."

Having lived all over the country himself and chosen Vermont, Mount empathizes with the job seekers. But he, too, has a word of warning for people attracted by Vermont's mountains, lakes and the expected slower pace of life. Those, he says, "Are the people who haven't tried to drive down Shelburne Road at 8 a.m.!"

The pull of the Green Mountain State doesn't seem to be a big factor in recruitment at the state's largest industrial site, the IBM plant in Essex Junction, which employs 7,000 people. Public relations manager Jeff Couture says they don't track the geographical source of internal or external applications. Applicants are generally more interested in what, rather than where the job is, he says.

At Burlington's major hospital, Fletcher Allen Health Care, the state's second largest employer with more than 4,000 employees, the picture is different. Director of employment services Barbara Church says they hear almost daily from out-of-state medical and information services professionals wanting to relocate to Vermont.

"Very often it's the way of life that attracts them," she says, "although many are primarily interested in working for a university- affiliated teaching hospital." In an industry as homogeneous nationwide as health care, most applicants have realistic expectations about the job, she says. Nor does Fletcher Allen balk at offering relocation expenses in appropriate cases. "Health care is very specialized and there are so many shortages, so we're happy to hire the best match for the job, wherever they come from," Church says.

The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. in Shelburne sees out-of-state applications roll in at the rate of about one a week, says Sue Schermerhorn. "We get applications from programmers, managers, marketers," she says. "People really want to move here for the quality of life. They want to raise their children differently."

Karen and Tim Cornish are one couple who made the move and have never looked back. After relocating from Brooklyn to Burlington in 1995 when Karen secured a job at Vermont Teddy Bear, they've settled in rural Hinesburg. She says: "We now have things that I never expected to own in a million years -- like a chain saw.

"I'm from Chicago and Tim's from New Jersey. Neither of us wanted to live in the other's hometown, so we tried to pick a place we both liked. We wanted a small college town (like Burlington) because there's so much going on culturally.

"The places where we grew up didn't really start to sprawl out of control until we were in our 20s, so it was appealing to find a place that looked like the places we grew up -- with open fields and corner stores."

Now webmaster for Vermont Teddy Bear, Cornish says it was the Internet that made their Vermont-vacation-fed dream become a reality. Browsing for ideas, she found the Vermont Department of Employment and Training page. That prompted her to stop at the department's Pearl Street office when she was visiting Burlington and discover that Vermont Teddy Bear needed a retail store manager. As she was already an experienced teddy-bear professional, working in German manufacturer Steiff's New York office, it was the perfect opportunity.

But, nonetheless, it was a huge decision: "I'll never forget the day we decided," Cornish says. "I had no reason to leave New York City - - I'd just been doing this for fun. I walked round the city streets wondering why I was leaving."

Some of the reasons became apparent as soon at they reached Burlington: "We found an apartment in a day -- in New York you don't find an apartment unless you know someone! For the same price we'd been paying in Brooklyn we got a second bedroom and a car port." And some of the advantages were seen only in retrospect: "I still love visiting the big city," she says, "but now I really notice how dirty and polluted it is."

Vermont's weather held no terrors for a Chicago native, although their first winter in Hinesburg led to "some interesting mornings," and the length of the Vermont winter has given her a new appreciation of spring and its colors. What has been surprising, however, is that their pace of life hasn't slowed: "It seems to be the same as in New York, because there's so much to do here," she says.

Lower salaries are offset by a less expensive lifestyle: "Here it's not built in to the social scene to go out for expensive meals and drinks -- you spend much less money than if you work in town.

"But we work harder at our jobs than we ever did in New York. Vermonters just seem to do that. The work ethic here is outstanding and something to be proud of. There's worlds more sophistication here than in New York," she adds, "Sophistication about what's really important in life."