Every single Vermonter is in the business of economic development. If you live, work, eat, sleep, play in this state, you are contributing to VT’s ability to sustain and you are equally dependent on that sustainability. Right now, we are facing a population & economic crisis — deaths outpace births and our workforce is aging at an untenable rate. As someone who plans to live and work in this state for the next sixty years, I see this as a time for action or we will cease to maintain our way of life. For businesses needing customers, non-profits needing donors, schools needing students, companies needing workers, or just people needing friends — we all have a role to play in economic development.
This year, I met Emily through the Champlain College network and we bonded over our shared love of Vermont, our zeal for travel, and our mutual respect for the college. One day, we were remarking that we also share a mutual respect for Sara — a woman in the community known for being a generous, engaged, and an all-around wonderful person. So last month, the three of us sat down to a creemee and got caught up. We talked about all-things-Burlington, our friends from campus, and how we each approach work-life balance. Emily is a junior pursuing her undergrad degree in business management & innovation and is now abroad studying in Ireland for the semester. Sara is the president of a successful local business, serving on five boards, and is the mother of a pre-teen. And then there’s me — COO of W+B, serving on a few boards & committees, with a seven-pound calico cat at home. I walked away from our meet-up feeling connected to and inspired by their varying perspectives and life experiences.
So what does this have to do with economic development and our high cost of living? One cause of Vermont’s high cost of living is the tax base and the demographic composition of the population and workforce. With many young Vermonters leaving the state, we have a very important challenge to undertake to retain and recruit this demographic. And I believe it begins with connection.
I previously wrote about why Generation Y-ers choose to stay in Vermont. And I stand by those reasons. But why does anyone stay anywhere? Surely even the best places to live eventually show their cracks and other locations will seem alluring. So why do we stay? Connection.
Having a mentor, a resource, a friend in the community is the most powerful retention tool we have. Someone who will champion you, offer opportunities, and mostly, who will hold you accountable — this is the key to stability. In our state, and particularly in Burlington, we have a lot of “transplants” — whether they’re college students, post-college, or newly-relocated, these residents are the ones most likely to leave. They have contacts nationally and we all know job and housing opportunities are stronger elsewhere. So how can we help each other and thereby strengthen our workforce, tax base, and community? By being inclusive and thinking creatively, we can continually work to stay connected and make connections for others. Like Emily, Sara, and me enjoying a creemee and offering each other resources and support, everyone can find a way to broaden and deepen connections, thereby stabilizing and retaining a younger workforce.
If it weren’t for the president of this company who hired me right out of college and his wife who introduced us, I might very well be living in a borough of NYC, repaying MSW loans, and contributing differently to some other community. Which wouldn’t be a bad life, but not the one I feel so fortunate to live here and now. My people have kept me supported, grounded, and accountable. And I am always looking for ways to pay that forward.
So, my fellow Vermonters and community members everywhere, who have you connected to today? Is there someone on a committee of yours who you could know better? Is there someone in your book club who might need more ways of meeting people outside of work? Does the recent college grad next door want to get together for coffee? Don’t be afraid to make an approach, to share perspectives, and make an impact — one creemee at a time.