What economic development?


There is a labor shortage in Windham County. So when Dave Altstadt -- of the Windham Workforce Investment Board -- and Andy Robinson -- of the Vermont Department of Labor -- announced that they intended to organize a career expo for Windham County, I imagined those old cartoon clips when you hear crickets in the corners of a cavernous, empty room. During their presentation to the workforce committee of the nonprofit Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, I worried they wouldn't be able to fill the hall. I felt the underlying anxiety that comes when planning a big event: What if nobody comes?

I needn't have worried; the place was packed. Sixty-nine people streamed through the doors at the Quality Inn on Putney Road in the first five minutes of the Sept. 26 Career Expo. Hundreds more followed. The attendees -- unemployed, underemployed, students and those seeking a career change -- met with local employers and learned about career opportunities in Windham County. The extensive line of cars parked along the shoulder of Putney Road was proof that, despite low unemployment numbers, workers are dissatisfied with employment in the region.

The official stats from Vermont's Department of Labor suggest that Vermont is in an advantageous position when compared to the rest of the country. Vermont's unemployment rate is below 5 percent, while the rest of the country is above 7 percent. But there are important nuances that official unemployment labor stats don't show. Those who have completely given up looking for work and those who are underemployed do not appear in the data.

Heidi Moore -- U.S. Finance and Economy writer for The Guardian -- notes that official measures of economic health and unemployment are problematic. When deciphering the post-shutdown U.S. jobs report, she explained that labor force participation rates give us a vital snapshot of the number of Americans who have dropped out of the work force: "[R]ight now it tells us about 63.5 percent of America is working, which is the lowest point in 35 years, since the recession of the early 1980s." So, the unemployment rate has dropped, but that may be, in large part, because people are discouraged and have simply stopped looking for work. The Brookings Institution estimates that recent U.S. unemployment stats leave out over 3.4 million Americans who would be looking for work in a healthier economy, referring to them as "The Missing Labor Force."

The low unemployment rate also does not reveal Vermont's underlying vulnerability. As Art Woolf -- associate professor of economics at UVM and editor of The Vermont Economy Newsletter -- wrote in a Burlington Free Press Op-Ed last July, "[O]ur low unemployment rate is more of a reflection of the supply side of the labor market rather than the underlying demand for labor. It reflects our stagnant population and declining working age population, not stellar economic conditions."

Whether you're contemplating the complexities of the unemployment numbers or simply talking to friends and family members, it's hard not to conclude that these are decidedly bleak economic times. The Washington Post reported this week that 47 million Americans will be impacted by recent cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) -- formally known as "food stamps." That's a staggering number of Americans who rely on government assistance to feed themselves and their families -- and that figure doesn't even include the federal WIC program. A recent chat with someone from Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center confirmed that locally more middle-class families also seek assistance from the food pantry.

The Atlantic's ongoing investigation of the demise of the U.S. middle class documents the many ways in which we have entered another Gilded Age. The richest 1 percent of Americans now owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This means that only the wealthy have the disposable income to power an economic recovery through consumer spending. Essentially, the "average middle-class" family doesn't exist anymore. The middle class is on food stamps.

The recent congressional flap over SNAP -- and its seeming refusal to address rising rates of poverty -- add to my feelings of dismay and paralysis. But, as a woman of action, I am inspired by all the hard work happening close to home. When I heard about the success of the Career Expo, I felt buoyed. This is an important mechanism to connect jobseekers and employers -- not just to discuss specific jobs but also to learn of the region's long-term career opportunities. Coupled with an extensive hiring inventory spearheaded by Pat Moulton Powden at SeVEDS, we will soon have a much clearer picture of which area jobs will open up in the next five to 10 years. We can then better prepare our resident workforce for available jobs, while simultaneously intensifying our efforts to recruit skilled workers from outside our area.

It is also heartening to know that the recent call for proposals for our region's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) document netted 52 solid plans -- from various regional organizations and individuals -- to support and enhance our regional economy. These crucial projects include: developing a regional job board; building a more sustainable childcare system; creating a machine apprentice program; and working to leverage broadband capacity. Certainly, there is no regional shortage of creativity, innovation and gumption. There are many hands on deck endeavoring to navigate us through the region's economic challenges.

As I conversed with a fellow parent outside my child's school the other day, I mentioned my work with SeVEDS and she quipped, "What economic development?" Like my erroneous assumption about the job expo's attendance, I hope that her pessimism diminishes as she sees critical economic development projects come to fruition.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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