Vermont has forest trails, yoga retreats, breweries galore — and a labor shortage so severe, the state is adding a new perk to its vacation packages: employment opportunities.
Officials are rolling out a program this summer that aims to persuade thousands of the state's 13 million annual tourists to move there and take jobs, an effort they say is crucial to Vermont’s economy. Guests who book hotels in three towns — Bennington, Rutland or Brattleboro — will also get access to taxpayer-funded networking events, company visits and walking tours with realtors.
“We hear from our employers constantly that they can’t find the workers they need to fill the job,” said Wendy Knight, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.
Enter “Stay to Stay Weekends,” the brainchild of the state’s tourism and economic development teams. Between winery stops and maple syrup tastings, guides will inform visitors about cheaper housing than in New York and Boston and smaller class sizes in public schools.
“We want people to know Vermont is an incredible place to live and work,” Knight said.
For the last six months, the national unemployment rate has maintained a 17-year low of 4.1 percent, and businesses nationwide complain they have more vacancies than applicants.
In Vermont, where the jobless rate sits at 2.8 percent, the issue is particularly dire.
The population has dipped slightly the last two years, from about 625,000 to 623,000, and residents are skewing older. The state has the third-highest median age in the country (44.6 years) behind Maine and New Hampshire. Millennials, local economists say, aren't replacing retiring baby boomers in numbers large enough to fuel long-term growth.
A recent study from the University of Virginia predicted Vermont will lose 10 percent of its working-age population by 2040.
“We have an 11,000-person gap in what the state needs to add to its workforce every year in order to remain stable,” said Casey Mock, executive director of the Vermont Economic Progress Council, a state agency, “and our workforce is only getting older.”
His worry: “Businesses could pick up and go somewhere else where demographic trends are more promising.”
Vermont's top employers include food and beverage producers. The state makes nearly half of the nation’s maple syrup and two-thirds of New England’s milk supply. It also has 11.5 breweries per 100,000 residents 21 and older, the highest ratio in the U.S.
Tourism brings Vermont $2.61 billion annually in business, per the state's latest estimates, and employs about 31,400 workers. The manufacturing sector includes more than 1,000 firms and consists of 36,000 staffers.
Knight, the tourism chief, said a broad range of employers are seeking extra help, including manufacturers, food processors, health-care providers and the hospitality industry. They want to recruit tourists with high school diplomas as well as advanced degrees to perform hourly jobs and salaried work.
“We have about 16,000 fewer workers than we did in 2009,” Gov. Phil Scott (R) recently told reporters. “We must think outside the box to help more Vermonters enter the labor force and attract more working families and young professionals to Vermont.”
Stephanie Castine, human resources director at Ehrmann Commonwealth Dairy, said her yogurt factory in Brattleboro has nine job openings.
Manufacturers are so strained for employees, she said, that a recruiter at a recent talent attraction meeting in town quipped: I’ll just wait until you hire people, and then I’ll steal them from you.
“We’re all competing for the same people,” she said.