Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

Where Have All the Workers Gone?

By now, we have all heard the story. Workforce Investment Boards around the state have recognized that 18- to 35-year-olds are in short supply and are going to be in shorter supply in the future. 

Last year, the Legislature passed laws that established two commissions to look at our Vermont labor force and economy. The Next Generation Commission, ably chaired by Bill Stenger from Jay Peak, has completed its report; the Commission on the Future of Economic Development, has just begun its work, with a September deadline for an interim report to the Legislature. 

Having been in the business of interviewing and placing people in jobs for 25 years, I have heard a familiar story. People grow up here and then leave after high school or college. When it comes time to raise a family, they bring their children home to Vermont, where the returning Vermonters believe they will find better schools, live in better and safer neighborhoods and grow up with “Vermont Values.” But the key clause in that whole scenario is that “people grow up here and then leave …”

The question is, Where have they all gone?

The answer is that they have gone to America’s cities — New York, Boston, Washington and the many other great cities this country has. Our own daughter, Kristin, finished college in 2004 and left that summer for Los Angeles. She had no job when she left, just the desire to live “someplace else” for a while. 

I know that virtually all our readers live here, and we all have our own reasons for thinking (knowing) that Vermont is the greatest place on the planet to work and live. We love our mountains and our lakes. We love the four seasons, the maple syrup and the thrill of taking a run on newly fallen snow. We love our cows and town meetings. In short, there is something for everyone most of the time. That is, of course, if you are not in the 18- to 35-year-old bracket. 

The governor, the Legislature and the Next Generation Commission have various courses of action to stem the tide, but that will take years. 

The question is, What do we do now? How do we staff our businesses for the foreseeable future?

The first answer is to hire older workers. The Social Security retirement age is gradually rising, and 65 is no longer considered time to go out to pasture. I met an active businessperson recently who is 82 and still working a full day every day. If you have older workers, work to keep them. Find out what their needs are and work to help fill those needs.

Another answer is interns. I am not thinking of interns just for the value they bring to your company, which can be considerable, but for their potential as future employees. While we will not stem the tide, not every 18- to 35-year-old leaves Vermont, and by giving an intern a positive experience, you may have an employee for a long time.

Welcome the returnees. I have met hundreds of people who were making that one-way return trip to Vermont after their lives away. We need to welcome them and keep them from becoming discouraged in their job searches. Even if you have nothing for them, make them feel welcome. 

Finally, stay active yourself. Read the report of the Next Generation Commission; listen to their advice and support their recommendations, if you can. Their strategy is long-term, but most of us expect to be in business for a long time, and following a long-term strategy will help insure our own business survival. •

Dave Mount is the owner of Westaff in Burlington.

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