Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff 

Keep Vermont workers the envy of the nation

I have had the privilege of serving on the Commission for the Future of Economic Development. The commission was established in 2006 by the Legislature, and we will report back to legislators in December on economic development issues facing the state.

The commission consists of 14 residents of the state. Some (like myself) were appointed by the governor; some, by the Legislature. Two represent the unions and nonprofit institutions, and two are ex-officio as employees of the state Department of Commerce.

This summer, we conducted a public engagement process. We held public meetings in 12 regions of the state, and we met with employers, nonprofits, chambers of commerce, and the public at large. It really gave the commission an opportunity to get a finger on the pulse of Vermont. 

Our public engagement also gave us an opportunity to identify our economic problems (and they changed over the course of the summer as the price of gas went through the roof). You might well ask what all that has to do with this column in Business People-Vermont. Most striking is what was said about Vermont’s people. We heard an earful. 

Vermont’s cachet is its reputation for hard work and good craftsmanship. This, coupled with the Made in Vermont label, has been very successful for our businesses. We heard, for example, from a representative of a well-known multi-national company with plants in Vermont, Virginia, and the Far East, that its efficient and productive Vermont workforce saved it from layoffs and plant closures. The Vermont work ethic kept the jobs here, and the Virginia plant was closed during a reorganization.

The question is: How do we maintain this efficient work force, which has become Vermont’s competitive edge? 

The answer is training. 

On a per-capita basis, Vermont has more colleges than most of the rest of the country, and our colleges and universities are becoming reputed as world-class; but college graduates are not our typical factory workers and craftspeople. Those are the graduates of our technical schools and specialized training programs.

Our technical schools are excellent, and we need more of the same. The report of Vermont’s Next Generation Commission pointed out that a group of Vermont young people who are not college-bound are not getting the training experiences they need, yet many school districts are loath to recommend students to technical schools because they lose the $6,000 per student allocated under Act 60.

Ongoing training of our existing workforce is also paramount if we want our workers to continue to be the envy of the nation. 

Hundreds of training programs are available to us as the employers of the state, and all we have to do is ask. Many of these are free. 

That leads me to the problem: how to get access to the training our employees need. This is a big and tricky problem. Many of the programs reside in a variety of departments within government and are uncoordinated from one department to another. 

The Vermont Department of Labor is one place to start. Commissioner Patricia Moulton Powden is a longtime advocate of training and has installed people in her department who know their way around the topic. 

Our elected representatives are also good sources. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Senators Bernard Sanders and Patrick Leahy have experts on their staffs to help with training issues.

Dave Mount is the owner of Westaff. in Burlington.

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