Business & Economy

Vermont begins push for workforce training programs to start working together

Workers hand-shape slate
Workers hand-shape slate roofing tiles at Greenstone Slate Company, which employs about 60 people. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Last January, asked to talk to lawmakers about workforce development programs, then-Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle sat before the Senate Economic Development Committee with an unruly stack of documents.

The papers described a complicated network of agencies and players that draw their money from state, federal, and private sources for job training. Some of Vermont’s several dozen workforce development programs were due to expire; others had just begun. The status of many was unclear, and nobody seemed to be able to say how much the state was spending on its many training programs. 

To members of the Senate Economic Development Committee, the display illustrated what they already knew: There was no way to assess who was doing what, how much it cost, and whether it was producing results. 

“This reminds me of a Rube Goldberg diagram,” Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, told Hugh Bradshaw, who then worked for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Brock suggested that the state DOL create a graphic to describe what was happening with workforce training.

“With the complexities that you are talking about and the various moving parts and various types of customers, it would be helpful for you to force yourself to put it in a way that you can actually see, and that works,” Brock said.

Regional workforce summits

Sophia Yager, deputy director of the state workforce development board, at a meeting in Putney earlier this month. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger
Sophia Yager, deputy director of the state workforce development board, at a meeting in Putney earlier this month. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Starting this month, the state’s Workforce Development Board is trying to get a handle on the issue, holding 12 meetings to figure out how to coordinate services. The board’s charge is to advise top policymakers on how to spend the $65 million in federal money that Vermont receives for workforce development each year.

At the board’s first meeting in Putney on Oct. 3, participants from the public and private sector worked together in small groups to come up with possible means of streamlining connections. Many mentioned that the largest obstacle is groups in the field working in silos, and state agencies sometimes failing to communicate with each other.

“For a long time, everybody has been in their own silo,” said Sophia Yager, deputy director of the state workforce development board. “It has taken a long time to break down that culture. People had great ideas but they weren’t working together.”

An economic development need

Workforce has emerged as the most important economic development issue in Vermont. The population is barely growing statewide, and it’s shrinking in the north and south. With unemployment at only 2.1 percent, there’s hardly anyone looking for work. And if they are, they often don’t have the kind of skills that most Vermont companies are looking for.

Asked to name their biggest obstacle to growth, most Vermont business leaders say it’s finding staff.

Policymakers have been trying to do something about this for years. But slowing them down is the existing system, a complicated web of independent programs that has grown up over decades, many following very specific federal mandates that create the silo effect. It’s difficult to get a handle on how many programs there are and what they are doing, much less which ones are producing skilled workers who succeed at Vermont jobs.

Sarah Buxton
Sarah Buxton is the director of workforce policy at the Vermont Department of Labor. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Nobody seems to know how much money the state is spending now on workforce development – or even how it should be defined.

“This question is obviously asked a lot,” said Sarah Buxton, the state’s director of workforce development at the Vermont Department of Labor. “It does seem like when we go out to survey people for what they see as workforce development, it’s still apples and oranges.”

Asked by VTDigger for an overall cost estimate of workforce development programs, Buxton sent some graphics showing the estimated costs of individual programs.

In an initial effort to help the state figure out how much money it’s spending now, she divides the programs into areas she described as recruitment, training, matching, upskill, and retention. 

“This is a construct of my own to help guide reform and improvement efforts,” Buxton said in an email. “I do wish it translated to funding streams – it would make this all easier to understand.”

Starting early

Policymakers say workforce development should start in elementary school, with field trips and classroom visits aimed at showing children some of the jobs that adults are doing. Technical centers are often not fully integrated into the credits and schedules of their home schools.

sock factory floor
Darn Tough recently expanded its socks factory from 184 knitting machines to 236. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Often, parents and educators steer young people toward a traditional four-year college and away from a technical degree or training. That’s part of the reason for the skills gap in Vermont and elsewhere. While parents and educators are still pushing students to finish four-year degrees, most of the jobs lacking workers don’t require those degrees but other skills training.

“If I ask kids how many people want to go to work in manufacturing, it’s zero,” said Mary Anne Sheahan, who runs the Vermont Talent Pipeline, a program of the Vermont Business Roundtable.  

“If I ask, ‘How many people want to be an engineer?’ There are lots of hands. OK, so as an engineer you make things. What are we going to call it? In the real world, it’s manufacturing.”

Plenty of programs

There is some sort of workforce service available in Vermont for everyone from elementary school students to seniors returning to work after retirement. But it can be hard to find.

State and federal agencies, nonprofits, private employers, and others provide the training, internships, and apprenticeships that policymakers want to connect to workers. The state Agency of Education runs career and technical education programs; the Vermont Department of Labor runs 12 regional offices called Career Resource Centers.

Regional Development Corporations work with businesses to coordinate internships; institutions like Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College work with employers and run their own training programs. The state Department of Health coordinates apprenticeships within the health care realm and funds employment consultants in alcohol and drug recovery centers and the Department of Corrections provides some vocational training through Vermont Correctional Industries. The state Agency of Human Services and some Housing authorities also provide employment services.

Vermont Technical College in Randolph works with employers on their own training programs. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Meanwhile, other public and private efforts help groups such as veterans, the recently incarcerated, refugees, the otherwise disadvantaged, and women. Then there are nonprofits like the Generator maker space in Burlington, which connect people with mentors, training opportunities, and local companies.

Bradshaw said as far back as 2008, when he was at Vocational Rehabilitation, employers told him they were being approached by representatives from many different workforce training programs at the same time.

“We were hearing from employers saying, ‘Don’t you people ever talk to each other?’ There was no coordination, and it was driving them crazy,’” said Bradshaw, who has since been hired to oversee the DOL’s adult career pathways system, which includes apprenticeships, internships, and adult/post-secondary career and technical education. 

Bradshaw said Vocational Rehab established a program called Creative Workforce Solutions that solved many of the coordination problems for that one small subset of the population – people with significant impediments to employment.

But for the larger population, the coordination problems remain.

Meanwhile, private groups like the Vermont Talent Pipeline, the Vermont Futures Project, and the McClure Center are weighing in on the discussion with data and policy priorities.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor and a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee, said those efforts have probably arisen from concerns that the state doesn’t have enough training in areas like health care and construction.

“There is some concern about duplication of effort,” Clarkson said. “They all want to vie for state and federal dollars now.”

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