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For love of state or opportunity

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February 1, 2007

By LEIGH ARSENAULT

VERMONT — After graduating from college most individuals are thrilled with the seemingly limitless opportunities open to them as they ponder their life options.

Some young Vermonters have found, however, that this ideal only applies to the work world outside their home state.

“The type of employment opportunities in Vermont are limited,” said Harley Brakeley. “Realistically, all the good jobs, once people get them, they hold on to them.”

He should know. The 22-year-old Middlebury native graduated from Colorado College last spring and currently is working at a local job that isn’t as fulfilling as he might have hoped for but does at least allow him to live in his home state.

Brakeley is among a young Vermont demographic that is trying to balance a love for their home state with aspirations of finding fulfilling life work. The existence of these young, underemployed people in a state with an aging population has encouraged Vermont state policy makers to step back from this demographic crisis and ask an important question: How do we encourage young Vermonters to live and work in the state?

To this question the Next Generation Commission has a few ideas.

This nine-member commission, appointed by the Legislature and the governor in 2006, in December released a 22-page report outlining a plan to link “learning to earning” in Vermont. In so doing, they hope to entice Vermonters to live and work in the state by making postsecondary training and education more accessible and affordable than it is now by providing both adequate training and resources. Composed of many of the state’s business, education and public service leaders, the committee outlined three main recommendations to the governor and state Legislature:

• Integrate the state’s economic development, workforce development and education systems. To date, the state has failed to spearhead a coordinated effort between these sectors of the economy, the report said.

• Increase state funding for postsecondary education and training throughout Vermont. This should include scholarships for students enrolling in Vermont state colleges and universities, loan repayments for graduates from postsecondary education or training programs who seek employment in Vermont, and workforce development for Vermonters who are either unemployed or underemployed and seek to strengthen work skills.

• Create additional career awareness, mentoring and job shadowing programs for elementary and middle school students in Vermont.

Gov. James Douglas, who supports the group’s recommendations, said that this comprehensive proposal represents the kind of workforce innovation that he hopes will strengthen Vermont’s shrinking labor pool. He is seeking creativity in workforce development.

“I was standing on a street corner, and a tractor trailer drove by with a sign that read ‘student driver.’ I thought, ‘Now that’s an important training program,’” Douglas said in a recent interview.

In the governor’s budget address in January, Douglas backed the recommendations of the Next Generation Commission by providing in his fiscal year 2008 budget proposal $3 million for scholarships, $2 million for loan forgiveness and $2 million for workforce training. Each of these programs would be funded entirely through general fund revenues.

If this initial budget is approved, the commission hopes that the state will increase funding of these and similar programs by $1 million each year through 2012.

“It’s not cheap to live in Vermont,” explained Douglas. “We’ve seen a rise in family income of about 3.5-3.7 percent a year, but prices are up 10 percent, property tax is up 7.5 percent, healthcare is rising, and college tuition … well, you know.”

Douglas admits that there are elements to the cost of living in Vermont that are not competitive with other states. In order to close what he refers to as “the affordability gap,” the state must provide Vermonter’s with necessary aid, as outlined by the Next Generation Commission: scholarship, loan repayment, workforce training, and job training programs in targeted industries and professions, he said. If Douglas’ Budget Address is any indication, the governor appears to be following through on each of these recommendations.

Tiffany Bluemle, a member of the Next Generation Commission and executive director of the nonprofit organization Northern New England Tradeswomen, said she was happy with the governor’s response, and hoped that with adequate time and money, the commission would be able to tackle all of its proposals.

“This is the first time that workforce development has occupied center stage in a policy debate. This is exciting,” said Bluemle. “The question is how we use the talent and experience that we have right now.”

NEXT STEPS

It is now up to the governor and Legislature to put the Next Generation Commission’s recommendations into action. Initial indications show that policymakers are taking heed of the report’s findings and proposals for action. The question still remains, however, if these are the appropriate steps to encourage young Vermonters to live and work in the state. Addison County community members provide a mixed response.

Howard Giles, a guidance counselor at Middlebury Union High School, hopes that the proposed scholarships will encourage high school graduates to further their education and inspire them to give back to their state.

“I think it’s a serious attempt to make a coordinated effort. They are defining the problems and making innovative ideals to deal with them,” Giles said. “Finances have become much more of a critical piece in the college selection process.”

Giles is skeptical that the commission’s proposals will result in more students attending Vermont colleges, but he is encouraged by the state’s promise for tuition assistance.

While scholarships are an important piece of this discussion, for some it is the after-college years that pose the biggest worry. Brakeley, who graduated from MUHS in 2002 and received his bachelor’s degree in history from Colorado College, fosters a clear appreciation for the unique, creatively inspired community of his home state. But he realizes that, for him, Vermont might be a career dead end.

“I keep on relying on my unskilled labor abilities (to secure employment) rather than any education I received,” Brakeley explains. He notes that most of his classmates are pursuing careers in metropolitan areas, such as Boston or New York. While many of them may not be living in a place where they ultimately want to settle down or are working at jobs they don’t like, at least the jobs offer competitive salaries.

“People come here once they make money and stay,” he said.

Brakeley is leaving his options open and still might pursue a career out of state, he has big aspirations for the future. For now, he remains content pursuing his passions and interests in Vermont working as a lift attendant at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl.

The Next Generation Commission’s report highlights some trends that have raised eyebrows:

• The total number of Vermonters over the age of 65 will double during the next 25 years, but the number of taxpaying adults will remain approximately the same.

• More than two-thirds of the 25 occupations expected to grow the fastest in Vermont between now and 2012 will require postsecondary training.

• Demographic shifts in the next 10-15 years will require that the rate of Vermont high school graduates continuing on to postsecondary education will need to increase from the current level of 68 percent to 90 percent by 2018 simply to maintain the same number of Vermont students in post-secondary schools.

• Vermont ranks 47th among the 50 states for the amount of money appropriated per capita for higher education.

FUTURE OF COMMISSION

Douglas explained that he is looking forward to renewing the Next Generation Commission’s charter, believing that the work of the commission falls in line with his new economic strategy of environmental leadership, job creation, technological advancement and innovative education outlined in his state of the state address last month. He stresses that education is the cornerstone for progress, hoping that the commission will refocus its efforts on a key component of Vermont’s secondary education program — namely math, science and technology. 

“We have a great opportunity to be, in essence, the Silicon Valley in environmental science,” Douglas said. “We need help from the state education department to get there.”

The work of the commission is the first step toward healing Vermont’s demographic crisis. Douglas’ budget allocations for all three recommendations — scholarship, loan repayment and workforce training — are the next.

Convincing trained and caring community members, like Harley Brakeley, to live and work in the state will be the most important step to recovery.

Editor’s note: Leigh Arsenault is a senior at Middlebury College and an intern at the Addison Independent this winter.

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