Worker Shortage, Population Decline Stymie Southern Vermont's Economy

Aug 11, 2015

This spring, the Legislature set a goal of improving the economy of southern Vermont. Last week, a special committee met to discuss how to make that goal a reality.

Lawmakers created a special economic zone covering the state’s two southernmost counties – Bennington and Windham, along with parts of Windsor county.

A nine-member committee tasked with steering the economic turnaround held its first meeting in Manchester last week. And the panel confronted some troubling trends.

The first is a projected population decline while at the same time the total population of those over the age of 65 is expected to increase.

Chris Campany, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission says one of the committee’s primary tasks is to reverse the regional demographic trends.

"Frankly, I’m wondering to what extent the Vermont governance model is even going to be able to continue to function if these demographic trends continue," Campany said.

Other indicators point to a regional economy that’s lagging behind other parts of the state. The number of visitors to visitor centers in southern Vermont has declined 25 percent since 2006.

And rooms and meals tax revenues – while increasing since the Great Recession – have lagged behind the Chittenden County region.

Frankly, I’m wondering to what extent the Vermont governance model is even going to be able to continue to function if these demographic trends continue." - Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission

Meanwhile, the rate of residential construction never left the recession, and is only half of what it was in 2006.

Peter Odierna of the Bennington County Industrial Corporation spoke about the shortage of qualified workers.

"One of our largest employers in Bennington County is NSK Steering Systems America. Since October of last year they have had a huge sign in their front yard saying, 'Now hiring, apply here; get hired today,’" Odierna said. "My concern is that sign is still up."

But Tom Caine, the owner of Against the Grain, a bakery and food production company in Brattleboro, described the difficulty in attracting and retaining a qualified workforce.

"When the unemployment rate is 3 percent or so, you’re actually having to hire people that really no one wants to hire. They are functionally unemployable," Caine said.

The next meeting of the committee is set for Aug. 19. The group plans to meet again in September to push forward on its report.