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A promotional poster for job fairs from the Vermont Department of Labor.

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Vermont has a record-high number of jobs that are vacant, thousands of more jobs than can be filled. In fact, there are more than 26,000 available jobs across the state, with employers beating the bushes to find someone – almost anyone – to fill the vacancies.

“They are trying to hire, trying to recruit more than they ever have,” said Gov. Phil Scott at a news conference Tuesday, held at the Champlain Valley Exposition where ‘Vermont’s Largest Career Fair’ was taking place.

Fueled by the pandemic, it’s never been harder to find a solid workforce, he added, listing an almost perfect-storm scenario creating and aggravating the problem: fewer young people working (60 percent in 2000; under 40 percent today); an older demographic; more people over 65 choosing to retire (about half the 26,000 Vermonters who left the workforce during the pandemic retired; the state hopes some of them “un-retire”); and others who changed careers, updated skills and education, or moved out of Vermont.

“Unfortunately this problem is not unique to Vermont and there is no silver bullet” to fix it, said Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington. “There simply aren’t enough working age Vermonters to fill all the vacancies our employers have.”

Harrington said retirees make up the “lion’s share” of people who have left the workforce.

Many of those who reply to ads, interview, get hired and trained often quit. Harrington said for every three hires, employers see two of them walk away. That’s expensive for businesses.

The governor said no sector of the economy has been spared by the labor shortage – truck drivers, nurses, law enforcement, health care, child care workers, food service staff, and more.

“This is true in all sectors, but especially the trades,” he added. Building a workforce in the trades will become even more important as infrastructure projects funded through federal COVID relief funds get underway. In fact, Tuesday’s job fair was sponsored by AGC/VT The Vermont Construction Association.

Other job fairs are scheduled around the state, including in Bennington on May 24 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., held outdoors in Deer Park at 353 North Street.

Scott said Chittenden and Franklin counties appear to be doing better than the rest of Vermont. But, he added, “How do we revitalize the other 12 counties of the state?”

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Scott took a swipe at lawmakers who are finalizing their state spending plan, saying their budget – one passed by the House, one by the Senate; and now a compromise bill is being crafted – uses too much one-time federal money to expand state services and not enough on workforce development initiatives.

Those workforce proposals include expanding affordable housing, improving access to broadband, and helping communities clean up blighted properties and increase their grand lists with more infrastructure that supports businesses.

The governor said he is sometimes asked why the state doesn’t require those on unemployment to take open jobs.

“We’re down to 3,000 who are on unemployment, so that doesn’t fill the need,” he said.

The unemployment rate is currently 2.7 percent; there were about 90,000 on that program at the peak of the pandemic. He said that’s why it’s vital the state focus on other ways of building the workforce and attracting new people and young families to Vermont. He said the population has risen slightly, but, “we have a long way to go.”

Lindsay Kurrle, Secretary of Commerce and Community Development, said there’s been an increase in people moving to Vermont, “and we want to keep that momentum going.”

She also urged Vermonters young and old to step forward if they have needed skills. As an example, she said some general stores are using retirees to help with staffing and other jobs to stay open.

“We need to help right now,” Kurrle said.

The governor said other businesses are using perks to bring retired workers back – such as offering flexible and part-time schedules.

The problem didn’t happen overnight, Kurrle said. And it will take time and commitment to rebound.