Steve May: Vermonters in exile

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, a licensed independent clinical social worker who practices in Burlington.

Vermonters may have joined me in my shock learning that metropolitan Burlington is considered the third most robust labor market in the country by the United States Department of Labor with an unemployment rate of under 4 percent in January 2016. The Vermont job market always seems to be the subject of deepening levels of commentary from the chattering class. Nearing what economists consider to be “full employment” seems inconceivable. Vermont after all is the land of dueling “Jim = Jobs” and Moonlighting in Vermont bumper stickers.

This bumper sticker wisdom underpins deep insecurities about our local economy. While we are creating jobs, we are most decidedly not creating careers. Our neighbors are industrious, and as such have become accustom to working hard. The dirty secret of our employment numbers is that many of us, work longer in part time and seasonal jobs and make less compared to others similarly employed to stay in Vermont.

That most of us are aware that we will need to take a “discount” in pay to remain in a place that we love, with neighbors, friends and families who support us is obscene. The language we use to describe this reality amongst our neighbors, friends and families is equally obscene. People will discuss the all too familiar “brain drain” as skilled workers and high-end labor departs Vermont. Inevitably there is a discussion about the cost to Vermont, our communities and our sense of place in the world. What seldom is discussed is whether we as a society are prepared to do the things necessary to bring these neighbors, friends and family home.

Moving away was ultimately was the right thing to do for our family at that moment — it also was completely gut wrenching.


In my case, I know I would have done most anything to get back to Vermont. A family illness coupled with leaner employment opportunities resulted in our family moving out of state. At the time, my wife and I grappled with that decision and its consequences. Moving away was ultimately was the right thing to do for our family at that moment — it also was completely gut wrenching. Abandoning friendships and work peers with the idea of maybe, one day, if the stars, sun and moon all line up just right; then maybe … just maybe … the opportunity to come home (and we do consider greater Burlington to be our home) will somehow present itself.

The reality is that in our case that it took eight years. EIGHT LONG YEARS. Eight years filled with on and off job applications, resumes, interviews, long drives back and forth to meet potential employers. Eight years of trying to shoehorn your career wants and needs, your personal wants and needs and your family’s wants and needs, balancing, twisting rationalizing and cajoling. I suspect that many of us who left the state under conditions and circumstances not necessarily of our own choosing have similar experiences to mine and our family’s.

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Lost in this larger conversation, are the people who have been turned out due in many cases to circumstances beyond their control. Maybe the problem is that we don’t have a name for this group. For our purposes let’s call them Vermonters in Exile or Displaced Vermonters. Maybe some elegant term of art describing them makes it easier to not lose track of them, as they are very much at the center of this conversation. It’s easy to think of the communal loss to our towns, and neighborhoods, it’s much harder to measure the collective loss to our Vermonters in Exile. Fraying of connections create a heavy price.

With it being an election year, we are destined to hear a litany of opinion leaders and politicians discussing the affordability crisis, God knows that Vermont is not a cheap place to live, but we need action not words; and a plan to bring our folks home will require thoughtful and concerted efforts across society and state government. But let’s together recognize that solving this crisis is essential to securing a different kind of economic progress for all Vermonters regardless of where that Vermonter rests their head at the end of this day.


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