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As Vermont struggles with worker shortage, VTC president focuses on solving the problem

  • Patricia Moulton, president of Vermont Technical College in Randolph.



VtDigger
Saturday, May 25, 2019

RANDOLPH — Vermont — like most other states — is struggling with a worker shortage. The state’s employers have said the labor market is so tight that it’s suppressing economic growth. The task of Pat Moulton, president of Vermont Technical College, is to connect Vermont workers with the post-high-school training they require if they want to fill some of the unmet need at local companies.

VTC has 1,500 students at its campuses in Randolph and Williston and then at 10 additional sites around Vermont where it provides nursing instruction. Tuition is about $15,000 for Vermont residents, with another $11,000 added for room and board.

Moulton arrived at VTC in 2016 without much experience in workforce development, but she said she has acquired it quickly. She has held positions as secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development and as commissioner of the Department of Labor, and she served as chair of the Vermont Environmental Board.

Moulton spent some time talking to VtDigger about the state of Vermont’s higher education system. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VtDigger: Education policymakers have been saying since at least the 1980s that the U.S. isn’t training workers with the skills they need. Has anything changed since then?

Pat Moulton: The skill needs have changed since the 1980s. It has gotten harder for those who don’t pursue some education beyond high school. The labor shortage has forced a lot of manufacturing companies to look at productivity enhancement, which translates into more technology, which translates into needing higher-level skills. The liberal arts are still important here, but the big shift is occurring with those technical skills and the need to have almost every profession proficient in some degree of computer science.

There’s little you can do without having some computer knowledge.

VtD: It’s hard to find information about post-secondary programs in one place. Is there a system?

PM: This has been a 20-year discussion: How do you have one place you can go to find training? The main reason that hasn’t happened is because it changes hourly. There are new courses that pop up, and others that don’t get offered anymore.

I feel the solutions need to be regional. And we have to get a whole lot better at sharing best practices. We talk about how small Vermont is. If there is some great training program that works in Bennington, let’s duplicate that if there’s a need in the Northeast Kingdom. That happens haphazardly, and that’s why we need a system.

VtD: Who provides post-secondary training now?

PM: The high schools, most of the colleges, the regional development corporations, Chambers of Commerce, the Vermont talent pipeline, the entire Agency of Human Services — because they have a vocational rehabilitation program — obviously the federal and state departments of labor, the Agency of Education and the state Department of Commerce, which has training grants.

There are nonprofits like the McClure Foundation and the Vermont Community Foundation. The USDA has small grants that can be used for workforce development. The U.S. Economic Development Administration has grants.

VSAC has grants for non-degree education programs. The U.S. Department of Labor has a boatload of other grants. The DOL has a workforce education and training fund.

Private companies provide tuition reimbursement for employees to advance their education, and Vermont will co-fund customized training for businesses.

VtD: Is Vermont any different from other states when it comes to workforce development?

PM: No, except we have not invested enough. Other states are investing much bigger and better.

We’re smart and ahead in a lot of things, like civil liberties and environmental policy, but I’m not sure we’ve quite got it right on how we are dealing with our education and workforce development needs. I mean, and I don’t have the answers by any stretch, but just the K-12 funding battles, we haven’t figured it out yet.

Nor have we figured out how to coordinate the educational requirements in our schools. Local control means we don’t have the same quality in all our schools.

We haven’t got the career exploration down well. We have a great system of career and technical education, but we haven’t figured out how to fund it so it’s not detrimental to sending high schools. We haven’t figured out how not to stigmatize career and technical education. It’s considered, apparently, that if you can’t go to college, you go there, and nothing could be further from the truth.

VtD: Isn’t that the case in most states?

PM: It’s certainly not the case in other countries. I can’t speak to other states. Other states do a better job of funding their pre-K through 16, because they are bigger and have more resources.

You have the school boards and school budgets with local control. I’m not saying that’s a bad system; I’m saying it leads to fragmentation and a lack of consistency around the state in how we are achieving our education and career goals.

VtD: Why does this gap remain between workforce that is available and the workforce that is needed?

PM: It’s hard for education to keep up with technology change. The technology we’re using today will be different two years from now. If you ask employers what skills their workers will need five years from now, they say, “That’s a good question. I don’t know what my technology is going to look like.”

Another reason for the gap is we still have a lot of people who believe you don’t need a college degree to succeed. And they’re right; you don’t always need a four-year degree. Sometimes it’s an associate’s degree, and sometimes it’s a certificate. But more and more jobs require some education beyond high school. It’s our job in higher education to figure out how to best prepare people for those jobs.

There’s also the flat-out affordability problem. Now, in today’s world, where we are questioning the value of a college degree, I don’t think that helps.

Another thing I hear a lot of criticism about is math skills when students come out of high school. Some districts say you must have four years of math, and some say two; they are all over the map, based on local control. There is a lot of stuff that is inconsistent.

(Former Education Secretary) Rebecca Holcombe says they put out their standards, but it’s up to each school how they do that. It depends on the school, and it depends if you are on the college track.

Understanding math is really core to so many things these days. The way we have the system set up doesn’t lead to consistency, but I truly don’t think our problems are different from any other states.

VtD: What is Vermont doing well in this area?

PM: We do apprenticeships pretty well in this state. There are a lot more apprenticeships than you know about, probably. It’s not just plumbing and electrical; it’s childcare, insurance actuators, and machine technology.

We do well on having well-equipped career and technical education centers, but we don’t do a good job funding them. We have no common schedule in this state, so if you want to take programs at the career and technical center, but you’re in high school, it’s complicated.

We’re positioned uniquely because of smallness to do a better job solving these problems. When you’re only communicating among 600,000 people, not 6 million, you know who the principals and superintendents are and meet with them regularly. It’s not like in Florida where there are gazillions of you. We are smaller and know each other pretty well.

VtD: In a perfect world, who would do what to make it easier to match workers with the right skills?

PM: We would have 14 people deployed throughout the state, at least one in each county, whose sole job was to work with employers and find out their talent needs. Those individuals would then work with career and technical centers, with us, with CCV, other colleges, to meet those needs. There are a couple places in the state doing it really well: the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., and the Franklin County Development Corp.

People say, ‘There’s $58 million in workforce development money in this state; why aren’t we getting better results?’ That’s because $4 million is our flexible money. Everything else is directed to the homeless, to people on welfare, dislocated workers, the disabled — all specific populations. There’s very little available to Joe Q. Public to get assistance for education.