By Gov. Peter Shumlin
The agenda I laid out earlier this month seeks to make life a little easier and more affordable for Vermont families by attacking the two biggest drags on incomes and wages: health care costs and rising property taxes. Addressing those issues alone, however, isn’t enough. If we’re to really make progress for Vermont families, we need to combine increased affordability with expanded job growth and economic opportunity.
We have a plan to do that, and it starts with ensuring more Vermonters have the skills to fill the jobs that are available right here at home. Every day I travel around Vermont I hear from employers that they have jobs to fill if only they could find skilled workers to fill them. From growing companies like Dealer.com, MyWebGrocer, and Logic Supply in Burlington to Pwnie Express in Barre, Yonder in Woodstock, and Global Z in Bennington, Vermont has a growing technology and manufacturing economy that is thirsting for skilled workers.
We’re going to help fix that. Building on programs we’ve already implemented that help Vermont kids get up to two years of free college, we’re implementing an innovative new public/private partnership to create a pathway for Vermont Technical College students to earn a free Associates Degree in Engineering Technology. Here’s how the program will work: The State will partner with Vermont Tech to recruit employers who have job openings. Vermont Tech and participating employers will then work together to recruit motivated high school seniors, through campus visits and employer tours. Students who sign up for an Engineering Technology degree through VAST early college at Vermont Tech will get their first year of higher education free while finishing high school, then will be guaranteed a summer internship at the partnering employer to gain critical job skills. When they return to Vermont Tech for their second year, the employer will pay for their first semester’s tuition, a cost of about $5,000. The Vermont Strong Scholars program will then pay back their loans for their final semester if they stay and work in Vermont after graduation.
It’s a win-win-win: Enrollment will increase at Vermont Tech, Vermont kids will get a free higher education, and Vermont employers will have a pipeline of skilled employees from which to choose. And by utilizing state existing programs and leveraging private investment from Vermont employers, the new program won’t add costs to the State’s budget at a time when we’re working to match Montpelier’s spending with Vermonters’ ability to pay.
Getting skilled workers to Vermont businesses is a good first step. But we also need to ensure more businesses get to that point of growing, expanding and hiring Vermonters. To do that, we’re going to increase investment in a proven economic growth incentive for businesses. Just this year, the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive (VEGI) program has provided funding that will help Vermont companies, from National Hanger Company in North Bennington to Cabot Hosiery in Northfield, Vermont Packinghouse in Springfield, and Blodgett Ovens in Essex, create over 550 new jobs for Vermonters, with an average yearly salary of more than $50,000.
We’ve got a plan to expand VEGI by removing the $1 million cap for special projects outside of Chittenden County; working to change the qualifying wage rate to recognize regional economic differences, which will increase the number of companies around the state that qualify for job creation support; and enabling companies to use VEGI dollars earlier for training new hires.
Finally, with tourism supporting 30,000 jobs in Vermont, we can and should do more to grow this important industry. Working with business in Vermont, we’ll use increased revenue from the rooms and meals tax to boost tourism and marketing funding. Under the proposal, 15 percent of Rooms and Meals tax receipts above budgeted projections will be invested in increased tourism and marketing support. The funds will also be used to promote remarkable companies that show what a great place Vermont is for technology businesses, manufacturing, and entrepreneurship.
Vermont has a bright jobs future, and our agenda for progress will make it even brighter. I look forward to working with Vermonters to get it passed and am eager to hear any other ideas that will help us help Vermont businesses continue to succeed.
Peter Shumlin was elected to a third term as Vermont governor in November.