Gov. Phil Scott has repeatedly said that a declining workforce is at the root of every challenge Vermont faces. Few Vermont employers would argue otherwise, as they struggle to find enough employees to keep their doors open. It’s a game of numbers, figuring out how the nation’s second-oldest state attracts more people than it loses. We have yet to post a passing grade.

Some of the objectives are as obvious as they are difficult to overcome. We’re predominately rural. We have one county of any size. Chittenden. Franklin and Lamoille counties are at least growing, albeit at a rate far below the national average. The remainder of Vermont continues to see a decline in population. 

What the pandemic has shown is that we have little to no hope growing much if we don’t address the need to get broadband out to those who don’t have it, which is about 60,000 households. It also doesn’t work to think that a five-to-ten year buildout is acceptable. It’s not.

To think otherwise is crippling. Our window of opportunity is now. To buy into the argument that  we should be patient, that it will take the better part of a decade to communicate in a 21st century manner is ridiculous. Worse, it’s condemning. The message from Vermonters to their leaders is: We have the money. We have options. Figure it out. Get it done.

Then, there’s this: If you could identify a source that routinely brought to Vermont anywhere from 250 to 400 people each year, and they were all college educated, all expressing a desire to put down roots in Vermont, wouldn’t it seem obvious that this “source” would not only be protected, but supported? Wouldn’t you want to see if its growth potential has been tapped? Wouldn’t you invest what was necessary to find out? 

That job source exists: it’s is the University of Vermont. When you dive into the numbers the result is a bit shocking. In a good way. Every year UVM graduates a little more than 3,000 students. Of those 3,000 about a thousand are Vermonters [44 percent of them attend tuition-free.] Of the 3,000 who are graduated roughly 43 percent stay in Vermont. The math is a bit rough, but what that means is that the net population increase is considerable. UVM may be adding several hundred people to our communities every year; if so, it’s arguably the largest factor in Chittenden County’s growth. 

Think about it: If UVM is adding 300 people a year to the area’s population [which is the equivalent in Vermont to a medium size business], and if it does this year after year, which it does, then what other economic engine in Vermont is in the same league? 

The latest census shows that Chittenden County grew by roughly 7,000 people from 2010 to 2020. That means UVM could be responsible for about 40 percent of the county’s growth.

Obviously, the figures aren’t exact and we don’t have any means by which we know where UVM’s graduates settled, or what they are doing. What we do know is that the university has almost 34,000 alumni living in Vermont. We know that it’s pushing about $1.3 billion through the state’s economy each year. And we know that’s it’s the state’s second largest employer.

And, finally, the other thing we know is that when compared to other states, we give it almost no financial support.

That presents two problems: First, it ignores the peril facing higher education. Particularly in New England. Our student population count continues to drop and the competition from other schools, other states, and online education is increasing. Second, UVM is the best means by which Vermont can address its demographic challenge. If the university can do what it does with almost no state support, then what are the possibilities if we elevated our thinking, as well as our financial support?

It’s also important to pair this understanding with what the future could be with the Community College of Vermont. It’s been long understood that the most successful cohort at UVM is CCV.

So, what can be done to feed more Vermonters into the CCV system, who eventually would make their way to UVM?

If, as the governor makes clear, the lion’s share of our problems have their roots in our declining workforce then why is it that we don’t force the conversation? Why do we allow the political inertia that drives our inaction to continue? Why do we allow side conversations that have short life spans divert our attention from an issue that overwhelms all else, and an issue that has been generational and will continue to be?

by Emerson Lynn

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