According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the nation’s cities, Vermont’s lone metropolitan area has the third lowest unemployment rate in the country.
At 2.4 percent, unemployment in the Burlington/South Burlington metro area trails only Ames, Iowa and Lincoln, Nebraska. The market includes all of Chittenden County and adjacent towns in four other counties.
The fact the jobless rate is half that of the state average means there are plenty of jobs to go around and few in the labor force are unemployed.
University of Vermont economist Art Woolf says the labor force isn’t growing much, so it doesn’t take a lot of job creation to bring down the unemployment rate.
“It’s a combination of an economy that’s doing OK growth-wise, but an economy that also doesn’t have much population growth. I think the demographic part is probably more important than the economic part,” Woolf says.
The on-the-ground result, he adds, is a buyer’s market for job seekers.
“It means really good things for people looking to find jobs because they’re easy to come by. It’s going to be a tough time for an employer to find workers," he says. "It either means they’re going to have to offer a higher wage or it means they’re going to have to go elsewhere to get that activity done. Maybe they’ll just outsource that particular job.”
Tom Kavet, the Vermont Legislature’s economist, is more sanguine about the situation.
“The fact that it’s third lowest in the country is great news," Kavet says. “There’s plenty of pockets in the state where it’s not doing well, but Burlington metro area is doing quite well and a low unemployment rate is a reflection of a lot of good things happening.”
Kavet says employers realize they need to increase wages when unemployment is low, so they’re able to compete with companies here and out of state.
But Tom Torti, CEO and president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, says that’s difficult when salaries offered in other places can be much higher.
“Combine that with the high cost of living here and it’s very hard to attract large numbers of employees,” he says.
Torti says in Chittenden County there’s a revolving door effect as companies hire from each other to fill positions.
For firms that aren’t adding large numbers of employees, the problem may not be as acute.
Tammy Bushell is human resources manager at Edlund Company in Burlington, which makes commercial kitchen appliances. Most job openings there are the result of someone retiring.
“I posted a position Wednesday at 4 p.m. and within a half an hour I had 13 applicants. And I had eight people walk in my door today,” Bushell said late this week.
She says Edlund is a beneficiary of the revolving door effect. Because it only runs a daytime production shift, she says the company attracts workers who are on second or third shift elsewhere and make less than Edlund pays.
“It’s a pretty good wage. It’s definitely not a livable wage when it comes to living in Burlington. We start people out no less than $12 an hour. They have an opportunity to move up relatively quickly,” she says.
The low jobless rate in the Burlington-South Burlington metro area might make it appear that everyone is doing well financially. But Torti, who also serves on the boards of The Committee on Temporary Shelter and Hunger Free Vermont, says homelessness and food insecurity among working families are growing problems.
“People have jobs. That’s a good thing. Many of those jobs, the wages are not keeping up with the very, very high cost of living in this area,” he says.
Torti says more affordable housing is key to helping those families already working in the Burlington area and attracting workers from out of state to join Vermont’s labor force.