Lawmakers’ appetite for state programs is way bigger than the state’s work force

By Rob Roper

A friend told me for the next three weeks she has to drive seven miles into town each day to collect her mail from the post office because her deliverer is going in for surgery and there is nobody available to take over the route. Indeed, our own daily mail delivery has been pretty much hit or miss for the past year.

Finding labor is not just a problem here, it’s a statewide problem. And it’s not just a problem finding postal workers, it’s a problem across every industry.

Headlines today highlight the fact that prison workers are having to do twelve hour shifts instead of eight five days a week to cover for a 20-25% vacancy rate among security staff.

Over the past six months we’ve heard and read about:

The shortage of nurses. According to a piece in Seven Days, “A third of Vermont’s registered nurses are at least 55 years old, meaning that the next decade will likely bring another wave of retirements. It’s now estimated that Vermont will need to add 1,800 nurses in each of the next five years to keep pace with the demand. That’s about three times as many graduates as Vermont’s four colleges with nursing programs…”

The shortage of primary care physicians. “We are definitely in a period where we are seeing physicians aging out of practice and not the supply coming in to replace them,” Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, told the Bennington Banner this past summer.  “There is already a shortage, so the next several years are going to be difficult for bringing in primary care for our area.”

The shortage of classroom teachers and support staff. According to testimony by the VTNEA to the House Education Committee on January 18, 2023, it was “Difficult to retain teachers prior to the pandemic… Currently 1,200 teachers are working under emergency and provisional licenses. School support staff vacancies are very high:… paraeducators, bus drivers, food service workers, behavioral interventions, custodians – are critical to meeting the needs of students, but are very difficult to attract and retain.”

It’s restaurant workers, carpenters, retail service, you name it. And while this is a national problem it is particularly acute here in Vermont. According to a study by HelpAdvisor, “Nearly 45% of small businesses in Missouri and Vermont are having a hard time finding new workers,” which makes us the two worst states in the country for available labor force.

During the 2022 gubernatorial campaign debates it came up that there are 20,000 job openings in Vermont and only 1500 people looking.

So, when Vermont legislators are prioritizing vast new programs requiring literally thousands of workers to make them function the proper reaction would be to scratch one’s head and say, “good luck with that.”

The Vermont Senate’s number one priority right now is the Clean Heat Standard bill, S.5, which calls for installing 145,000 heat pumps weatherizing 85,000 homes. The most ardent supporters of the bill estimate this program will require a labor force of 5000 trained workers in place in two years to have any hope of accomplishing these mandates. There are about 700 such workers – plumbers and electricians — in the state as of now. And they are all busy, many of them doing other important things like coming to fix my twenty-year-old water filtration system next week.

The Vermont House of Representatives’ number one priority right now is a massive expansion of early childcare in the state. Part of their proposal includes essentially adding a grade to the pre-k-12 system by creating a full day, five day a week program for four-year-olds. Did they not get the NEA memo referenced above that we can’t even staff the grades we have now?

Their number two priority is passing a Paid Family Leave program that will give the workforce we do have 12 weeks — three months – of taxpayer financed paid time off every year, which is the opposite of helping to solve this problem. (The logic here being that we can attract more workers to Vermont provided we make it so they don’t actually have to show up for work.)

The mindset of the Democratic supermajorities seems to be if they pour enough of our tax dollars into these programs the workers will somehow materialize, either attracted directly by the salaries of working for these programs or indirectly for the benefits of participating in them. But the evidence is in that this is not a winning strategy.

According to USPS change of address data compiled by Forbes, the top five states people are leaving are California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. For the most part, deep blue states with generous benefits and expansive government programs. These are states that look in terms of politics and policy a lot like Vermont.

The top five states people are moving to are Texas, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. These are all red states with low taxes and “right to work” laws.

Among other lessons that can be learned from this, there is not a trend of climate refugees fleeing north to escape Global Warming. Migration is generally headed in the other direction.

Lack of workers is a real problem for Vermont’s economy both for today and in the future. It is a root problem. Fixing this should be the number one priority for our elected officials because without people to do the work the greatest ideas in the world won’t amount to anything.

There’s an old joke about an economist stranded on a desert island with a can of beans that needs opening. Asked how to do it, he replies, “Let’s assume we have a can opener.” Asked to solve a problem, our legislature says, “Let’s assume we have a labor force.” We don’t. Unfortunately, this isn’t a joke.

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Lawmakers’ appetite for state programs is way bigger than the state’s work force

  1. There are a couple of things that jump out at me.

    The article says there are only 1,500 people looking for work? I wonder how many people there are that aren’t working. I assume that is a much larger number which begs the question: if they aren’t working, why aren’t they looking to work?

    Could it be that people have grown comfortable staying home as opposed to getting up in the morning, getting out of their sweatpants, and going to work? Could COVID shutdowns, along with receiving benefits while not working, have something to do with that? And what about kids who didn’t have to attend school due to the shutdowns. Are they no longer incentivized to get up in the morning and go to work?

    Just wondering ….

  2. Who wants to come to VT? Well, the successful & smart….not the ones seeking “free stuff”. Very few come except skiers, tourists and covid refugee’s (but that is over now).. I had a great ENT doctor, moved here from NY, two kids. He lasted less than three years. He was HORRIFIED at the schools curricula and what teachers were doing. His kids were his most important thing. His wife hated the cold. And all this Doc saw was leftist politics played in health practice….and his low pay relatively. but he was here for the Dream. He ran out from VT, to a far higher pay job in CT. The VT Dream was a whitewash…. a dismal & darker reality.. More? IBM paid $1 BILLION to get out of VT. Green Mtn Coffee, a true success from VT…moved all major ops out of VT. Another VT homegrown? Burton Snowboards…they invented the industry…but ran afoul of Act 250 for needed warehouse expansion/building….so Burton moved all if it, and many great jobs careers, salaries and TAXES…to flatland OHIO.

    So the current Legislative fix is to blame ALL on Conservatives and Climate Change… Raise taxes, halt & tax heating oil and car gas….ban all other cars in a decade or so, force you to buy EV’s. Ban gas stoves…force down equiyy, equality, BLM, CRT, LGBTQ, Climate Change, Organic food…on and on……then always shout out ‘Class Envy, Class Warfare” and that rich folks don’t pay any taxes…. And then raise taxes, again… …it goes on and on in a true SOCIALIST PROGRESSIVE gov’t. These idiots are creating the self induced Vermont suicide. It can”t last….the free covid bailout is over.

  3. Do not forget the thousands of illegal, unvetted, unskilled, uneducated, from God knows where, border crossers, over the years, who will be on $government $programs to get $training to become part of Vermont’s workforce.

    Why not make them all citizens, in one fell swoop, and have all of them vote for Dem/Progs, the self-appointed, socialistic, do-gooders with other people’s money?

  4. Re: “The shortage of classroom teachers and support staff….”.

    I keep seeing this education narrative from all sides of the political spectrum. But the Agency of Education’s employment statistics belie the inaccuracy of this message.

    When counting only public-school teachers and paraeducators, the student/teacher ratio statewide is less than 4 to 1. Therefore, the statistic that there are ‘Currently 1,200 teachers are working under emergency and provisional licenses’ is a drop in the bucket given that there are 26,000+- teachers and paraeducators currently employed.

    When counting all staff working for the public schools (from superintendents and paid consultants to maintenance workers and bus drivers) the ratio is almost 1 to 1. That’s right. There are 75,000+- people employed in the public-school sector.

    Does this mean other sectors aren’t experiencing labor shortages? No, of course not. But I’m not going to bite on the contention that we can’t get enough teachers – likely a ploy to recommend, yet again, that teacher salaries need to be increased. Clearly, the number of people working in the public school system is irrelevant to the success of our children when only 40% of public-school students meet grade level standards.

  5. With increasing escalation of the cost-of-living in VT at the consumer level and also with taxes who can afford to move, live and work here? The longterm political trend has been to create more and more large numbers of jobs monitoring newly instituted state programs that used to be handled by the private sector: vehicle inspections, and all fuels’ use are two big ones. Education has been appropriated by the state long ago and look at what is the current per-pupil cost and the bloated salaries and employment rolls of the schools.
    Now they’ve found the next bureaucratic bonanza: engineer and institutionalize another huge state bureaucracy to administer and control the shift to complete state control of, and VT citizen reliance on electricity.
    Those not wealthy enough to pay the toll to live in VT are implicitly requested to leave or you will be forced out soon enough anyway. You will either adapt to a life of submission, squirming under the tyrannical and quasi religious, obsessive dogma of the state’s current political ideologies and tax funded bureaucracies or leave…….

    • Excellent comment Mr.Naess,

      The simple fact is that we largely boil down to two groups; those that work for the government creating “the product” and the rest of us out here on the receiving end of their “product”, that we pay for- I might add.

      What they’ve created not only is not working- which is why people are fleeing.
      There are many that are on the losing end of trying to survive their “product”. This is why the rates of people self medicating- to attempt to survive- is so high.

      The government has failed, it’s not working.
      Frankly, given that we are here in a failure saddled with their losing ‘product’, their credibility and competence should be questioned by the taxpaying voters.
      The people are not only not making it, our life experience is being diminished, our Natural, Constitutional, and Human Rights even- all being denied.

      People are emotionally and physically sick, worn down, dumbed down and too propagandized to even know or understand how to vote themselves out of this very serious crisis..

      Joe Biden’s inflation combined with so many other problems has made working not even worth it- it’s not furthering peoples lives.
      None of this is how things are supposed to work.. this is surely not signs of success.

  6. In every shortage of personnel Mr. Roper outlines above, The Vermont legislature has had a large hand in creating the problem. Most are the result of tax policy. The rest? Regulation to “fix” a perceived problem.

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