Column: Federal investment is key to filling VT jobs

For the Valley News
Published: 5/14/2022 6:02:03 AM
Modified: 5/14/2022 6:00:15 AM

As I travel to communities and listen to Vermonters describe their greatest challenges, I hear about the same pressing issue: our workforce crisis. Our workforce shortage shapes every facet of daily life in Vermont, from Brattleboro to Barre to St. Albans and everywhere in between.

That’s why, as your lieutenant governor, I’ve worked to bring businesses, educators and legislators of all stripes together to fund job training programs in high-demand sectors. But lasting change to Vermont’s economy will require sustained federal investment. That’s why I’m running for Congress: The greatest challenges we face will not be solved by Vermont alone.

Last fall, workforce development was the number one item on my Recover Stronger report. As lieutenant governor, my policy recommendations to the Legislature and Gov. Scott included putting our state’s ARPA funds toward expanded access to career and technical education, particularly in the human services sector. I’m pleased that the Legislature has acted on these recommendations to invest $84.5 million in workforce and economic development programs. However, this must only be the beginning.

As an aging state, workers continue to leave the workforce quicker than graduates are entering it. Each year, the state needs to fill roughly 18,000 vacancies in the workforce. However, Vermont’s high schools and colleges only graduate 8,000 students each year. According to Vermont Department of Labor data, our workforce participation rate has fallen from 66% in 2019 to 60.6% today, and we currently have 28,000 open jobs across the state.

In addition to this big-picture shortage of workers, there is also a skills gap: As of 2018, only 53% of working-age Vermonters hold a certificate or college degree. Let’s face it: our climate, broadband, housing and health care goals won’t be met on their own. Homes won’t weatherize themselves. Solar won’t install itself. Broadband won’t deploy itself. Without workers who can get the job done, these goals are simply wishful thinking.

That’s why, last week, I was proud to outline the details of my Federal Workforce Agenda. That agenda is centered around five key actions.

First, we must federally fund and guarantee up to two years of training at community colleges and technical schools that end in a certificate or degree. If we’re looking to close the skills gap and increase the share of our workforce that holds a certificate or college degree, we can’t ask our workers to foot the bill. My plan would also fully fund certificate programs taking less than two years, like training for commercial drivers, nursing assistants, EMTs and broadband technicians.

Second, we must establish a federal grant program to support partnerships between community colleges and employers. During the great recession, Congress supported such collaborations. A proposed bill from Democrats, the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act, would commit $2 billion to reviving that program.

Third, we must pass the PRO Act to protect workers’ right to organize. Through their training programs and apprenticeships, unions are a powerful ally in upskilling our workforce. As the wife of an airline pilot and union member, I’ve seen firsthand the security and stability union membership affords. Strong unions build vibrant economies and healthier communities.

Fourth, we must protect and expand federal funding for high school career and technical education. Our career and technical education centers are essential for giving young Vermonters a head start on a career in the trades. In Congress, I will seek to robustly fund technical education by reauthorizing and expanding the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which expires in 2024.

Fifth and finally, we must expand student loan forgiveness for degrees in high-demand sectors like health care and renewable energy. This an urgent, practical step we can take while working toward more sweeping higher education finance reforms in the future.

Currently, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program allows workers to have their student debt forgiven if they work for a government or nonprofit institution for ten years before the remainder of their debt is relieved. I believe that graduates entering the jobs we desperately need filled, even in the private sector, should be eligible for student loan forgiveness after just five years.

In Congress, I’ll stay focused on the needs of our rural communities and working families. I’ll bring federal resources to expand Vermont’s existing apprenticeships, technical schools and degree programs. I won’t do it alone — I’ll listen to the concerns of Vermont’s workers, employers and union leaders every step of the way. Our state has enormous potential. With the right investment, we can hand our next generation a local economy that’s greener, fairer, and more prosperous than ever before.

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is a Democratic candidate for the Vermont U.S. House of Representatives.

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