SWANTON — Kathy Lavoie of the Workforce Investment Board (WID) wants the county to work together to address what she calls the “formidable four”, the biggest impediments to successful workforce participation in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

They are: housing, transportation, child care, and substance abuse.

To that end, Lavoie, together with Swanton, the United Way of Northwestern Vermont and the Vermont Futures Project hosted a leadership roundtable last month as the first meeting in a series focused on addressing each of the formidable four.

“What is the most critical impact for economic development? The workforce. So I pulled the town of Swanton in,” Lavoie said. It wasn’t long after that the other partners followed suit.

“The next conversation was my dream of holding a summit on every single one of those issues in the region,” Lavoie told the roundtable audience.

In the summits, Lavoie wants to discuss what the resources exist, what money is coming from the state and how the county can bring that home. She also wants to better coordinate the regional resources, both human and financial. Finally, she hopes the summits will help identify the holes in services, so those holes can be filled.

“That’s what this meeting today is about. It’s about setting the stage for the four summits that we hope to hold with the support of the United Way, so that we regionally can understand what we have, what we don’t have, and how we can fill the gaps,” Lavoie said.

Development Partner Lori Smith of the Vermont Future’s Project presented data from the Department of Labor’s 2017 CTE Region Jobs Distribution and Concentration Report. According to the report, health and social services, and manufacturing jobs make up the majority of the region’s employment.

Jen Stewart of Franklin Grand Isle Community Action spoke to the issue of affordable housing. According to the 2018 Out of Reach Report, Stewart said, a minimum wage earner at $10.50 an hour would have to work 85 hours a week in order to afford a two bedroom market rate unit, and have that considered affordable in Franklin county.

Chris Lawyer of Green Mountain Transit spoke of how, even though Vermont spends more money per capita than any other state on public transit, there are still many needs that can’t be met under its current system.

Michelle Trayah of Northwestern Counseling & Support Services spoke of the demand for childcare, and how filling this need is a necessity to support businesses.

“It lowers employee turnover, reduces tardiness and absences, supports employee morale, lowers training and recruitment costs and increases employee productivity and performance,” Trayah said. “Childcare is a needed investment for a state’s workforce and a company’s future workforce.”

Christine Johnson of the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance spoke about how employers can be assisted in hiring and retaining workers with a history of addiction. Listing off a few ideas the Opioid Alliance is currently working on, Johnson mentioned developing a tool kit that consists of tax credits for businesses, federal bonding programs to help reduce risk, flexible workforce policies, and the development of strong employee assistance programs.

From there the roundtable shifted it’s focus to guest speaker Ted Brady, the Deputy Commissioner of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

“The key to the future of Vermont is that every town takes ownership of economic development,” Brady told the group. “But the first step is defining the problem.”

The problem, Brady says, is that Vermont’s workforce is declining. In 2009, he told the group, Vermont had 360,000 people participating in it’s labor force. The number today is reported to be 344,000.

In addition, 100,000 Vermonters of working age are choosing not to participate.

“That’s a lot of Vermont potential,” Brady said. “So we need to do two things. We need to attract 10,000 more people to our workforce a year, and we need to engage more Vermonters here into the workforce.”

After Brady’s presentation, the floor was handed over to President of the Superior Technical Ceramics (STC), Richard Feeser, to give the employer’s perspective on the formidable four and how to organize around solutions.

“We have a chance to really get real business, real growth and we can’t quite get the team together to make this happen,” Feeser told the group. “It makes you think what attracts people, and what are we going to do to try and resolve this problem.”

From an employer’s perspective, Feeser says at STC they are looking at how to make their benefit packages more attractive to prospective employees.

“The generation gap would suggest that not one package is going to fit all anymore. So we’re looking at making the package more innovative,” Feeser explained.

According to Feeser, the only way to negate the effects of the formidable four, is for employers to stop being passive, and actively work to solve the issues.

“I support the coming summits. I support all of you bringing ideas to these meetings. We do not have unlimited resources, but I believe that if we work together, we as the community, we as Franklin Grand Isle, we can put out a brand of what we want our community to look like,” Feeser said. “We need to put out a sign that we are open for business.”

The end goal of the afternoon roundtable was to establish with the leaders of Franklin County the next steps in combating the formidable four problems presented to the workforce. Lavoie and the WIB have handed over this project to the United Way to start planning and organizing the coming summits.

Working Bridges, a United Way program that already collaborates with employers on some of these issues, will lead the way.  NCSS is also said to be working closely with the United Way in coordinating these leadership summits.

United Way CEO Jesse Bridges and his team are aiming to hold the first summit in  early 2019. Experts in the formidable four, local businesses, employees, and community members will all be invited to the table, to collectively come up with solutions to help Franklin County’s workforce thrive.

“It will provide a robust way for us to think differently and think collectively on how we address these four issues in the community,” Bridges said.

 

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