“The Vermont labor market continues to be very tight. A prolonged economic expansion combined with demographic shifts in the Vermont workforce present a challenge to Vermont businesses seeking to attract and retain workers. Across the state, employers are reporting that they struggle to find talent,” said Lindsay Kurrle, commissioner.
-September 15 press release from
the Vermont Department of Labor.
The information that came out Friday from the labor department that unemployment is down to 3% and job seekers are being sought by the state should be cause for celebration. But, somehow, it just doesn’t feel that way, at least not here in the Deerfield Valley.
It’s great that some places, especially more urban areas like Burlington, are seeing a renaissance in their labor markets. But in rural Vermont it still feels like people are struggling, and perhaps even falling further behind. The tight job market is certainly being felt here, but in a bit of a reverse way. The ability of many businesses to find qualified help is one of the biggest challenges to the rural economy.
Don’t get us wrong, there are groups working really hard to bring jobs and workers to the region and we applaud their efforts. But despite those best efforts, employees are hard to come by, even for good paying jobs.
In so many ways, good jobs in today’s economy require two things, a 21st century skill set and a willingness to go where the jobs are. Those things mean rural areas across the country will likely continue to see a decline in population. It’s not enough to have social media skills, computer programming skills, or any of a a plethora of technology-based skills required to be successful in today’s economy. People also have to live near where the work is. That means, in many cases, relocating to a more urban or suburban community to find work. That contributes to the drain on rural communities, reduces school populations, and leads to a workforce shortage for those businesses that remain in rural areas.
Drill down a little deeper into the August unemployment figures, and the numbers change. Windham County’s unemployment rate is 3.1%, while Bennington County has a 4.4% rate. Those are higher than the average, and in Bennington’s case significantly higher. Even with those elevated numbers in our two southernmost counties, finding “talent,” as labor secretary Kurrle called potential employees, is complicated and difficult. Ask just about any employer here in the Deerfield Valley, and they’ll confirm finding qualified workers is difficult.
A lot of the labor shortage can be distilled down to affordability. It can cost a lot to live in rural areas. Drive times can be longer, public transportation more difficult, and wages lower. Those factors, and probably others as well, create some of the problems that lead to a loss of qualified workers.
Resort communities like those in the valley are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Resort jobs are traditionally low-skilled jobs filled by seasonal or transient workers. Add to that the escalating cost of housing, and it creates a situation like we see now, where workers are scarce in large part because of the high cost of living.
One of the best things that can be done to help improve the employment pool for businesses in the valley is to increase the pool of affordable housing in the area. How that might be done is certainly up for discussion and debate. There are a number of options for local governments and developers to pursue.
But there is no doubt the lack of affordable housing is having a direct impact on the employment situation in the valley. Without the housing issue being addressed, the employment situation will only get worse, not better.