Business & Economy

Vermont Youth Conservation Corps: A first-job trailblazer

Vermont Youth Conservation Corps
Students working for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps include, seated from left, Gavin Waite, crew leaders Samantha Travis and Jerad Fisher, and, standing from left, Damian and Ashley Dierkes. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Most teenagers looking for first jobs are limited to baby-sitting or stocking shelves.

“There are a couple of stores that maybe will take you,” 16-year-old Gavin Waite said, “but you can’t work at a gas station because you can’t sell cigarettes or alcohol.”

That’s why the young Vermonter took another path.

Waite is one of nearly 300 students who are blazing forest trails and tending farmland this summer as part of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps.

The soon-to-be Brattleboro Union High School junior has woken early weekdays to put on a hardhat and heavy shirt, pants and boots, pick up a shovel, hoe and shears, and pursue such tasks as building a 20-foot bridge and pulling invasive plants.

“The mosquitoes are really annoying,” Waite said. “Then there’s working in all that mud. And moving all those big rocks.”

Then again, the student, working at the local Retreat Farm, can hear birdsong, feel a breeze and see a paycheck in an otherwise barren youth employment field.

The national teen labor force participation rate, which peaked at almost 60 percent in 1979, has dropped to about 35 percent as recession-ravaged adults have taken many of the lower-skill-and-wage jobs that used to be the province of entry-level workers.

Vermont Youth Conservation Corps
Vermont Youth Conservation Corps members, from left, Damian Dierkes, Gavin Waite and Ashley Dierkes build a trail at Brattleboro’s Retreat Farm. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
Digging alongside Waite, fellow honor-roll student Ashley Dierkes said the corps’ weekday schedule of 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. is more reliable that trying to schedule baby-sitting gigs.

“If you have connections you can work at certain places,” the 16-year-old East Dummerston girl said, “but when you’re younger, a job is hard to find.”

The VYCC began in 1985 and is based on the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps that paid Depression-era members to build hiking trails, ski hills and state parks. Dierkes’ brother, Damian, is finding present conditions similar to the past in one respect — crew members are unplugged from digital devices.

“I like being on my cellphone a lot,” the 15-year-old said, “so it’s weird not being on it.”

“Usually I would be checking social media all day long,” Waite added, “but here you’re not allowed to.”

That said, the organization is taking to the internet to share its schedule of public introductory programs Monday at 5 p.m. at St. Albans City Hall Auditorium, Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Woodstock’s Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Manchester Community Library and Aug. 15 at 5 p.m. at Barre’s Aldrich Public Library.

“A lot of people don’t know the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps is doing really great work,” program services manager John Woodward said. “We’re going to continue to hire, train and send out more youth all around the state to complete important, impactful projects.”

And to learn a few real-world lessons.

“I thought this would be a good first job,” Waite said.

Then the teenager received his first check.

“I found out I’m not a fan of taxes,” he said. “But the best payoff is just the whole experience.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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