Since 2010, Vermont’s population has grown by only 0.1%. As the population continues to shrink, so do the workforce, state revenue, and tax base, making the state less affordable, in the view of Governor Phil Scott, who addressed the Rotary Club of Essex on May 1.
“This is not a partisan issue,” he stressed. “We need to do more to encourage people to move to Vermont.”
As of this year, mortality rates exceeded birth rates in all Vermont counties but four, and labor forces have declined by 15,000 people since 2009. While the unemployment rate in Vermont hit a record low rate of 2.3% in March, this is only half the story, Scott said. The state lost an average of 2,300 workers per year from 2010 to 2016, and national projections estimate that Vermont’s working age population will drop by more than 10% by 2040.
According to Scott, the solution lies in a “data-driven approach” that reaches out to prospective movers. When asked what he meant specifically, he remained vague but listed phone calls and knocking on doors: “the Vermont way,” he said.
In order to attract more working families, the Governor supported an increased investment of $2.5 million to expand the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP), which will make child care more affordable and support early child development.
He also talked about an incentive program, designed to attract young professionals to move to Vermont. The return on investment is about two years, with the returns—a larger workforce, broader tax base, and more revenue—far exceeding the input.
One Rotarian inquired about the lack of housing in Vermont, noting an issue with families who might want to move to Vermont but can’t, due to housing. The Governor responded that a $35 million housing bond was put in place last year that should leverage $165 million in assets, but that it takes time. “It’s not just about building; it’s going to be about being able to afford it after,” said Scott.
Part of the problem in attracting prospective residents, he said, is a skewed perception. Vermont is often painted into a corner as a state lacking in jobs, where the cows and trees outnumber the people. But there are jobs to be had, he reiterated.
One of Vermont’s greatest assets lies in its outdoor recreation. Gov. Scott talked about using the state’s assets creatively to attract more people, recalling a tour he took of UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes, Vt. where one of the employees told him, “Every time we need another engineer, we put an ad in the mountain biking magazine.”
A couple Rotarians also voiced questions about the environment and the state’s future in energy efficiency.
“I’ve cut my teeth racing around the country and you don’t know how impressed I am with the torque of an electric vehicle,” the Governor responded, a stock car racer himself who has won three racing championships. “When you see Harley Davidson come out with a line of electric motorcycles, you know times are changing,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the room. On a more serious note, Gov. Scott said that he hopes to invest more in green tech, including charging stations, and to create incentives for people with electric vehicles.
While Gov. Scott stressed the need to attract more young people to the state, he did not propose a way to change this perception. When pressed, he reaffirmed the need for young people rather than give a direct answer.
Averi Preston, a senior at Essex High School heading into her freshman year at Roger Williams University in the fall, told the Governor she thinks that young people go where their opinions matter. “We want our voices heard,” she told the crowded room of Rotary members. Then, looking at Gov. Scott directly, Preston asked, “What are you doing to encourage youth leadership in the community?” Someone whistled softly.
As the Youth Co-Chair of Board of Directors at Essex Chips, Preston believes that if youth can be more involved with the community, they can get a broader idea of different opportunities available to them at the local and state level. Priority number one should be to make young Vermonters want to stay.
“We should be listening to you,” Scott responded.