Three simple numbers, many difficult solutions
Oct 05, 2017 | 2365 views | 0 0 comments | 234 234 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“The numbers that keep me up at night are six, three, one. Every day we lose six workers from the workforce. Every day there are three fewer students. And there is one baby born to opiates or addiction every day. Those are the challenges, and the path forward is to focus on the economy, making Vermont more affordable, investing in housing.”

-Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, in last week’s Deerfield Valley News

When Gov. Scott said the above during a visit to Readsboro a couple of weeks ago, it should have given pause to everyone in the room. Vermont faces a number of challenges, and Scott’s simple six-three-one formula succinctly encapsulates what those challenges are.

We also think those words bear repeating, and hope business leaders, government officials, and elected representatives at every level in the state pay attention to them. For so many reasons, more than can possibly be listed here, those are the major issues that are dragging the state down. If we don’t continue to find ways to solve them, who knows how far the bottom may be.

Let’s start with the idea that six workers are leaving the workforce every day in Vermont. We don’t have the numbers to verify that, but given that he has an in with the Department of Labor we’ll take him at his word. In a state of less than 700,000 people, that’s a staggering number. Is it any wonder businesses around the state can’t find workers with any skill set, let alone qualified ones? That is certainly the case here in southern Vermont. In fact, the declining workforce is going to be a continuing problem for the entire country, at least until the aging baby boomer generation completely exits the workforce. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum: how to replace the largest generation the country has seen, and perhaps its most successful, while the ones that follow it are much more modest in size and, perhaps, ambition. That declining workforce and aging population have made for challenges not seen in this state for more than a century, if ever.

That problem of population decline is also one that affects schools in Vermont. As boomers age, their children are producing fewer offspring. That’s not necessarily bad, given the strain on resources an ever-expanding population requires. But, we have an educational infrastructure built for the peak student populations of the 1960s and 1970s. That has led to excess capacity and concerns over the rising cost of educating a shrinking population.

The one other thing Scott talked about was drug addiction. It is one of those problems that has wide-ranging effect, from the addicted babies Scott mentioned to contributing to the lack of able-bodied workers. Drugs can wreck families, businesses, and lives.

These three problems didn’t just happen overnight. They won’t be fixed quickly, either. It will take a long, sustained effort to find the right size for our workforce and our schools, and to treat and heal those with drug addictions.

So how to go about solving them? We don’t have enough space in this paper to go into details. But what we can say is that these issues affect everyone in some way. But it is interesting that Scott sees the way forward through the economy. There is no doubt that is a major component. When jobs are plentiful and wages growing, those three issues tend to fade somewhat. And we’re not sure exactly how a strong economy would directly impact the opioid epidemic. People tend to use drugs in good times as well as in bad times. Perhaps a good job would keep some from using.

But we do get the overall point Scott was trying to make, that those three numbers need to stay top-of-mind whenever discussions are had about the economy, schools, the population, and the effects on our society as a whole.

The math is pretty simple, but those three basic numbers are going to take some complex calculations to solve.
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