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Coming and Going: Vermont Struggles to Grow Its Workforce

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Ethan Bechtel - MOLLY WALSH
  • molly walsh
  • Ethan Bechtel

Ethan Bechtel sank into a caramel-colored leather chair in his Burlington office. He wore a flannel shirt, jeans and fashionable stubble as he explained why he chose Vermont as the home base for his mobile app startup, OhMD.

Bechtel, 34, is the sort of entrepreneur economists and politicians want to attract to Vermont. Many of them, including Gov. Phil Scott, bemoan the state's stagnant population and wring their hands about the need for more young workers.

Bechtel, who grew up in Shelburne and graduated from the University of Vermont, launched his company in New York City. He moved back with the business in 2015 to satisfy his craving for the outdoors and to escape Manhattan, which was wearing thin. "It's nothing like Vermont — no skiing, no lake," he said.

Bechtel wants to stay. "I think if you understand what Vermont is, and you're that type of person, then it's an amazing place to land."

Convincing people who leave to come back — and to bring their friends — must be a priority, Scott suggested to lawmakers during his January 23 budget address.

"A shrinking workforce creates a downward spiral. With fewer workers we have less revenue, and the state becomes less and less affordable ... We must act now," the newly-installed Republican governor proclaimed.

He echoed a January Vermont Chamber of Commerce report that said the state should add 10,000 people to the workforce annually for the next two decades.

Vermont's population dirge is an old and familiar tune. Wyoming is the only state with fewer people than Vermont. At various times in the state's history, political leaders have pushed for population growth. In the 1890s, after a steady influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Québec, the state agriculture commissioner recruited Protestants — primarily Swedes — to revive abandoned Vermont farms.

A few came, but not hordes. Population growth was modest continuing well into the 1900s. A back-to-the-landers surge in the 1960s and 1970s brought many flatlanders from more crowded states.

And now? Vermont's population dropped two-tenths of a percent between 2010 and 2016, from 625,745 to 624,594, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest estimates.

That's a dip, not a plunge. But it's compounded by uneven shifts: The population is growing in Chittenden County, Vermont's economic engine. Yet it's shrinking in many more rural reaches of the state, from Rutland County in the south to Essex County in the north.

There are consequences. Home values are appreciating in Chittenden County, where the average home sale price rose from $247,000 in 2010 to $270,000 in 2015. During the same period, values in Rutland County dropped from $148,000 to $140,000, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

And while school enrollment has been declining statewide for 20 years, the trend is often felt most acutely in small towns such as Proctor, near Rutland. The town's marble curbs and sidewalks speak of its history as a quarrying center that once attracted many immigrants. These days, new arrivals are few and so are children. Last year, the senior class at Proctor Junior/Senior School had just 18 students, down from 42 in 2003.

Vermont has one of the lowest birth rates in the nation and plenty of baby boomers heading into retirement. These trends have some businesspeople and economists worrying that the state's workforce could shrink.

There's disagreement on the gravity of the problem.

"The demographics right now are operating in a direction that isn't helpful," said Jeff Carr, who has long forecasted revenues for the state as president of Economic & Policy Resources, a private consulting firm in Williston. "It's a big lift to reverse these trends," he said.

David Bradbury, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, which funds startups and oversees coworking spaces, is also worried.

"I do think population decrease is a problem, and what causes that is really the issue. I think it is an issue of affordability," Bradbury said, pointing to the cost of housing in particular.

Generally accepted economic theory views population decline as a brake on the economy, explained Matthew Barewicz, an economist with the Vermont Department of Labor.

"The fewer people you have promoting and encouraging economic activity, the less of it there's going to be," he said.

But traditional models often don't take into account indicators such as happiness, Barewicz noted. And more than a few Vermonters might view population decline with a smile if it means fewer traffic jams and shorter lines at the grocery store.

Population Change by County, 2010 to 2015

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Paul Cillo, president and executive director of the nonprofit Public Assets Institute, a think tank based in Montpelier, is concerned, but not alarmed, about the population trends.

"I don't think population decline is a good thing in general," Cillo said. But the bigger conversation is about the nuances within the trend, he added.

Almost everyone who talks about the issue produces data — some solid, some not. For example, there's the not-so-scientific study by United Van Lines, a moving company that reported that in 2016, Vermont was second in the nation for most move ins (67 percent) compared to move outs (33 percent).

The problem: It's a survey of United Van Lines customers only, not a representative sample of the Vermont population. The survey was based on just 277 moves for Vermont, when thousands of people came and went.

In-depth studies paint a different picture. Carr, who presented the state revenue forecast for 2017 to 2019 to legislators last month, noted in the report the "obvious concern" associated with the possibility that recent declines in Vermont's population might continue. That "could limit the ability of the state's labor force to grow — to the long-term detriment" of Vermont's future economic growth, Carr's report states.

Vermont's low unemployment rate — 3.1 percent in December — means some companies already can't find workers, and that's bad news, Carr said.

"If you don't have people that are available to take the jobs that are needed by the economy ... the potential performance of the economy goes down," he said.

Public Asset's studies, using Internal Revenue Service data, show that during the last two decades, about 15,000 to 16,000 people have come and gone from Vermont every year — with a few more going than coming in recent years. People who move in tend to earn more than people who move out, the data show.

Some of the movement, or "churn," could be related to economic factors, including the cost of housing, childcare and availability of high-paying jobs, Cillo speculated. But some of it is also people being young and restless.

Still, thousands of people move to Vermont. State leaders should pay attention to the reasons why, with the hope of expanding that pool, said Cillo.

"It's still a significant number of people that are choosing Vermont. I think that's important because they could supposedly choose any place, and they choose to be here," he said.

Take Matthew Gardner. The 23-year-old left New Jersey to attend the University of Vermont and stayed. He graduated with an engineering degree in 2015 and said he is already earning $50,000 a year at an engineering firm in Williston.

The outdoors is a big draw, and winter weekends often find him riding a chairlift. He's already notched 20 days on his season pass to Stowe Mountain Resort. His girlfriend, a UVM grad from Baltimore, lives in Burlington, and they join a pack of friends on weekend adventures. "Skiing and snowboarding and mountain biking, rock climbing, ice climbing," Gardner said. "We kind of all do those things together."

His shared Burlington apartment costs him $650 a month — less than it would be in many big cities, Gardner said — and it's close to the Winooski line, so he can walk to that city's bars and restaurants.

Bechtel found a similar bargain when seeking space for his small company. It's a VCET coworking office space on Burlington's Main Street in the FairPoint Communications building. Despite a drab exterior, the building's third floor is a hip space with a Silicon Valley vibe: cowhide rugs, shag-carpet pillow covers, funky glass light fixtures, cartoon wallpaper and a green ping-pong surface that doubles as a conference room table.

The rent is $100 a month per person. "This place is amazing; it's a steal," said Bechtel.

His company is small, with 4.5 full-time positions including his. Two employees work remotely — one in Dallas and one in Brooklyn.

Bechtel's goal is to gradually expand the business, which sells secure mobile texting services to doctors and health care professionals who must comply with privacy laws governing patient information.

Bechtel wishes it were easier to find programmers, he said. He suggested Vermont leaders should do more to get college students into internships or "co-op" work before they graduate. "There's plenty of students around," Bechtel said. "The thing is, are they equipped with the skillset they need to help a growing tech company?"

VCET launched the coworking space with help from UVM and other organizations. Dozens of people work there, including remote employees for Twitter and Google and online gaming entrepreneurs such as Marguerite Dibble.

Dibble, 26, grew up in southern Vermont's tiny Landgrove, graduated from Champlain College and launched her company, GameTheory, shortly afterward. Today she has seven employees.

She hired three people from the same Champlain College computer gaming program she completed. Many other local tech CEOs struggle to find the right talent, Dibble said, but so far she's managed.

Sometimes, she loses a worker — often because his or her partner gets a better job elsewhere, be it Boulder or Austin.

"There's just more [population] density. You can get higher salaries, faster growth, horizontally and vertically," Dibble said. "There's just more opportunities where there's more people."

For her, Vermont has its own appeal. After work, Dibble often goes home to Starksboro and unwinds with a walk in the woods. She said the scale and beauty of Vermont should be front and center in any campaign to recruit more people to the state.

She said, "I think Vermont really needs to own its own identity."

Why They Left

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  • I'm a seamstress, and my husband is a video game programmer. We both were able to make significantly more by moving out of state. We miss Vermont a lot and would love to move back, but it's just hard to justify taking a pay cut while also increasing our cost of living.
    Claire Devoid
    seamstress
    twentysomething
    Las Vegas, Nev.
  • I moved away from Vermont about a year ago to live abroad in Prague. I left Vermont for personal reasons, as well as the fact that there aren't many opportunities for young people there. And honestly, I was bored. I had lived in Vermont my entire life, and I needed to experience something new and different. Vermont will always be "home," but sometimes home is not enough.
    Sally Fyfe
    event manager
    twentysomething
    Prague, Czech Republic
  • I absolutely love Vermont and lived there for over a decade, but unfortunately I wasn't able to find a position after graduating school due to prerequisites in acquiring my pharmacist license. Another major factor: I was just tired of long winters. There was also a lack of a bigger Asian grocery resource. Sometimes larger musical acts would be difficult to see unless you headed to Boston or Montréal.

    I would probably move back in a heartbeat if there was a job opening in the greater Burlington area, but with the influx of grads from Colchester's Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Services — my school — there may be some competition. Along with friends and family, the sense of community is what I miss.
    Julie Vo
    pharmacist
    twentysomething
    Austin, Texas
  • After graduating from law school, my husband and I moved to Nashville because of the cost of living and better job opportunities. We love Vermont and miss the quality of life but wouldn't be able to move back unless we found comparable jobs. My husband is a chef, and the culinary market in Vermont is oversaturated. I found the same to be true after law school with attorney opportunities.
    Stephanie Bowman
    editor
    thirtysomething
    East Nashville, Tenn.
  • I moved away to find a new job. There weren't very many opportunities in Vermont for advancement. I would not move back at this point.
    Nicole Bride
    IT systems engineer
    thirtysomething
    Houston, Texas
  • My family moved to Vermont from Chicago in 1990, after spending several idyllic Christmases in the state. The chief reason for moving: "It's a great place to raise a family." The same saying that suggests Vermont fosters strong values and a sense of community also implies that it lacks the crime associated with more diverse cities. There is an underlying racist tone to the phrase, and I quickly came to realize it as a young child witnessing the striking lack of diversity between Vermont and Chicago.

    The benefits of being raised in Vermont were not lost on me, though. I attended a public high school that incorporated students from both affluent and non-affluent communities. Benefiting from small class sizes and support for the arts, I was able to receive special attention for my budding musical talents. I moved away from Vermont for the first time, to New York, to receive a formal music education.

    Over the years, I used Vermont as an anchor between life events. My longest stay since first leaving was a three-and-a-half year period where I opened up my own teaching studio out of my parents' home and became an adjunct lecturer and artist-teacher at four local institutions for higher education. I was able to accomplish this in my twenties because I was one of the only people in Vermont with this particular, and needed, knowledge set.

    The down side: four precarious semester-to-semester contracts, no health insurance, a full schedule even on weekends, and no possibility of permanent full-time employment. If Vermont was a bird's nest, I was about to be pushed out.

    In 2012, I sold most of my belongings, packed up my Prius and drove to San Francisco. I had no plan, no job prospects. After feverishly networking for one year, I started a new business. Four years later, I manage and perform with one of the most hired bands in the Bay Area, have health insurance, free time to spend with a diverse set of friends and acquaintances, and a Bernie 2016 sticker in my window.

    To achieve all this, I both needed Vermont and needed to leave.
    Emily Day
    singer
    thirtysomething
    San Francisco, Calif.
  • We left Vermont after 30 years because of the rising cost of living. That coupled with low wages. We wanted to buy a home and couldn't get out of the renter vicious circle. We moved to Kansas in August and haven't looked back. We still have tons of family there and now can afford vacations to visit! That, and the weather is better for my personal health.
    Florinda Rocha
    retired
    fortysomething
    Potwin, Kan.
  • I moved to Florida to be closer to my daughters and grandchildren. I want to come back! I hate Florida and am sick of living in a Trump enclave. I miss mountains and snow. I miss my family.
    R. Winona Johnson
    teacher
    fiftysomething
    East Palatka, Fla.
  • I grew up in Vermont and left in my mid-twenties for the south. I returned in my mid-forties hoping for a midlife reboot. After trying to get into graduate schools in Vermont, I finally applied to Duke University in North Carolina and was accepted. It's ironic that I got into a better university than any in Vermont after being denied in Vermont.

    I believe that in Vermont, ageism is a problem in regard to education and employment opportunities for middle-aged people. Also, the taxes are steep, the cost of living is high and it's wrapped up in a lengthy winter. After graduating from Duke, I moved out west to New Mexico and, though I miss my kids and grandkids in Vermont, I have no desire to reside there again.
    Meg A. Wallace
    doctoral student in clinical psychology
    fiftysomething
    Corrales, N.M.
  • Taxes, both income and eventually estate tax ... And weather!
    Chuck Clark
    grocer
    sixtysomething
    Inverness, Fla.

Why They Came

  • I'm originally from Vermont, and actually there are better job opportunities in my field here than in California. It's much cheaper and safer. Also, better skiing.
    James Merriam
    Congregational minister
    twentysomething
    Newport
  • Came here for grad school at the University of Vermont. I had always wanted to be here, and school was a way to do that. Luckily my employer had a part-time job opening, and I was able to stay with my organization as I moved from New Hampshire to Vermont. I love the fact that Burlington has everything that I want: mountains and trees, but also lots of people and energy. I also love the socially conscious environment of the area. Though we are small, we seek to make a big difference in the world and do our best to lead by example.
    Abby Kendall
    nonprofit administrator
    twentysomething
    Burlington
  • My wife loved the medical school, and I'm able to work remotely.
    Evan Weiss
    editor, McClatchy
    twentysomething
    Burlington
  • I had a passion for snowboarding and wanted to make it part of my everyday life. After college, a little over five years ago, I got a job at Burton Snowboards and moved up to Vermont to start my career. I have left that job since but continue to live in the Green Mountain State. My husband and I love it here so much, we decided to set down roots and bought a home in Williston less than a year ago.
    Maddie Moninghoff
    art director, Skillet Design and Marketing
    twentysomething
    Williston
  • I grew up here, moved to New York City for college and stayed for 15 years. I ended up wanting to change careers and get out of city life, and my husband really fell in love with Vermont, so we came back. It's only been a few months. We are still adjusting, but so far, so good!
    Tori Preston
    copywriter
    thirtysomething
    Hinesburg
  • My husband, Thomas, and I fell in love with Vermont nine years ago, when we went camping in Grand Isle and explored the Burlington and Stowe areas, taking our first hike to Sterling Pond. We decided then that if given the chance, we would move to Vermont. Eventually we got it in July 2015, so we made the move from New Jersey, which had been our longtime home. We have been in Burlington since.

    What drew us to Vermont is its billboard-free natural beauty, a strong local economy, local organic food sources, appreciation for the natural environment and respect for small local businesses. We are so lucky that we have the chance to shop local and support our fellow neighbors. Vermont has given us the chance to open our own practice since there is strong support for holistic and alternative medicine.

    We have also been able to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, as we no longer own a car and use CarShare Vermont. We look forward to exploring more hikes and towns in this beautiful state.
    Michele Bloch
    doctor of physical therapy
    thirtysomething
    Burlington
  • Financial stability. My husband and I each found full-time jobs with benefits. We bought a house when I was 27, four years ago. Still, it hurts when you always see news about "young people moving away." I have a ton of friends my age who moved here from out of state. Why don't we matter?
    Shannon Planck
    speech pathologist
    thirtysomething
    Barre
  • My wife, young daughter, and I moved here in June 2016 because my wife matched at the University of Vermont Medical Center for her medical residency. I was able to keep my job, and I work remotely now. We've lived in Boston for the past eight years and will be here for this three-year residency program. It's certainly been a change, but overall we're happy here.
    Richard Sheward
    senior policy analyst, Children's HealthWatch
    thirtysomething
    Burlington
  • My husband and I grew up in the Northeast, in small communities. We both spent a lot of time in Vermont as children and young adults. Our dream was to make a life in Vermont, but instead ended up in Atlanta, Ga.! It was supposed to be for a few years, but life happens, and 13 years flew by. We were tired of the hour-plus-long commutes and the failing education system. We realized it was time to make the move. All of our family is in the Northeast, with immediate family living in Montpelier. So, we made the decision to sell our home and uproot our 5- and 7-year-old daughters and move to Vermont!

    We knew it would be tough. Vermont is a very expensive state, compared to the south. The cost of gas, food, electric, oil, clothes, and pretty much everything else is much more expensive! Our salaries remained the same, if not slightly less. We ended up renting for a year and then purchasing a home in Montpelier.

    We are still adjusting to the cost of living in Vermont, while enjoying the outdoor activities the state has to offer and the education. People take it for granted, but to have a school with multiple times a day for recess, art, music, technology and highly qualified teachers ... this is amazing! Communities in the south are fighting hard to keep physical education, health education and recess in the schools. Almost all music and art have been cut from budgets.

    We love living in Montpelier. The walkability of the town, friendly and familiar faces as you walk down the street, and a strong sense of community. As I say, it takes a village to raise kids, and I feel like Montpelier is our village. We are so happy to start setting our roots here for our family.
    Adrienne Gil
    director of operations, Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children
    thirtysomething
    Montpelier
  • We bought a large older home in Hardwick. I lived there for half of summer 2016 and will spend half of summers there until I can enable spending six months a year in Vermont. The slower pace of life, mild summer temps, ample biking and hiking opportunities, along with great beer and cheese, make for a great escape from a fast-paced life in Austin, Texas.

    So, in a sense, I both move to and from Vermont each year. It's always a big adjustment. People are generally friendly in Vermont, but some can be quirky and rigid about some things.

    When I try to explain life in the Northeast Kingdom to Texans, I often mention that not much has changed there in the last 100 years. Take the use of technology: It's so integrated into everything we do in Austin, and in Vermont I get scolded if I suggest the library could send me an email instead of paper mail. Many Vermonters are shocked to see my 8-year-old son has an iPhone. In West Austin, where tech is a big part of the economy, it would be rare for an elementary kid not to have one. The school here even provides each K-12 student an iPad.

    There were some surprises in Vermont. No trash pickup? I have to haul my trash to the grocery store and haggle with a guy who charges me more than he does the locals. A lot more.
    Paul Schuster
    homemaker
    fortysomething
    Hardwick and Austin, Texas
  • We left California to find a simpler, slower life, to participate more deeply in community, and to be closer to the natural world.
    Kathleen Duich
    freelance writer and brand strategist
    fiftysomething
    Putney
  • I moved here in the summer of 2011 in order to teach high school English in Burlington. I went to — and graduated from — Goddard College in the '70s and had begun thinking about leaving my hometown of Washington, D.C., in order to work in a district whose demographics seemed like a good match for a qualified teacher of color seeking a new career — and a lifestyle change. But like all changes, this quixotic quest proved to be more complicated and contentious than I'd expected.

    In sum, I would say that I was naÏve when it came to accepting the myth of Vermont as a place free of racial animosity. I'd like to think that my love for teaching has made its way into the information I offer listeners on my jazz program on VPR.
    Reuben Jackson
    VPR radio host
    sixtysomething
    Winooski

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