Workforce development cannot and should not take place in silos and nowhere is this more clearly understood than in the Barre Area of Central Vermont. There, multiple agencies, organizations, community stakeholders and market players have come together to advance economic stability and prosperity for everyone who calls the region home.
With interstate and rail connectivity, a growing infrastructure, affordable real estate, all the services and amenities one could need, unmatched natural beauty and a quality of life that is desired by many, the Barre Area and Central Vermont are rich in opportunity from both a personal and professional standpoint.
Located in Washington County, the third wealthiest and second-fastest growing county in the state of Vermont, the Barre Area benefits from unmatched connectivity, with access to a market of 53 million people within a 500 kilometer or 311 mile radius and 69 million people within a 700 kilometer or 435 mile radius.
Executive Director of Barre Area Development Corporation (BADC) Joel Schwartz explained, “Employment is regional; residency is local,” and in this regard, and for the benefit of local business and industry, connectivity and access to regional markets is extremely important.
While Central Vermont enjoys economic strength, there is a need for talent, and though some of the largest local employers like National Life, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont have invested greatly in in-house training programs, the need for skilled employees presently outweighs available talent and resources.
There are two factors having implications for the regional labor market: economic growth and a loss of skills through retirement. As a result, there has been a collective recognition over the last decade that more needs to be done to train the next generation of workers to address the needs of the local and regional economies.
The area is known as the Granite Capital of the World, a legacy industry that has long been an economic pillar in the area, and this has been a major focus of local and regional workforce development efforts as of late as a labor shortage threatens growth. The industry is also going through a process of modernization in terms of the tools and equipment being used, which means that workforce development will require both training and recruitment efforts.
“In many cases now, there is highly sophisticated equipment – CNC five-axis lathes that are being used. Fifty years ago, it was a guy with a hammer and a chisel and so that’s what we’re really seeing, that the training that we’re providing and the workforce development that we’re doing has a more technical nature to it,” said James Stewart, executive director of Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation (CVEDC).
He went on to acknowledge that advanced manufacturing is how this legacy industry has been able to evolve and survive for over a century, but future growth will require new employees to replace the skills that are being lost through retirement.
To increase interest in careers in the granite industry, greater emphasis is being placed on an apprenticeship model to ensure that a skilled labor force is available to address the needs of this highly specialized sector. “What we need to get through to students is that they can make a very good living without having to incur $50,000 of college debt,” said Schwartz.
To this end, a pilot pre-apprenticeship program has been instituted at the high school level to accelerate students who wish to enter an apprenticeship upon graduation and to improve the pipeline of talent flowing into the industry. Initiatives at the high school level are supported by resident work-based learning coordinators who work closely with students to guide them into viable career paths that will provide them with a good livelihood and will support the needs of the local economy, like those being offered in the granite industry.
Manufacturing comprises nearly 20 percent of the local economy, but the area is very economically diverse and it is this diversity that gives the economy strength. “I think we have some demographic challenges but the fact that we have a diverse economy makes it possible to adjust to what happens in the economy,” Schwartz explained.
Workforce development could not take place and would not be successful if it were not for organizations like BADC and CVEDC that are building bridges at all levels through what Stewart described as, “Collaboration, coordination and communication, which are the key to doing as much as we can with what we have. We’re a small enough state and we’re a small enough region that we know who the players are and we’ve started the process of really putting those players from different sectors in a room to have the conversations and then come up with meaningful steps they can take. We’ve got all the elements to deal with the problem,” he said.
Through collaboration, local education players from the K – 12 education system, as well as the Community College of Vermont, the Vermont Technical College and the Central Vermont Career Center, are doing their part to train up the next generation of workers, leveraging all available resources in the region to do so; to date, there have been some great successes. Together, business, education and government agencies are having early success in the Barre Area and Central Vermont, which shows promise for larger, more impactful developments to come.
One such success is the workforce summit that was recently facilitated to bring together the different players in the region to develop a better understanding of local and regional workforce needs and to collectively devise a strategy to address this problem.
“What you haven’t seen enough, from my perspective, is a really engaged business community in that process, so as a result, we haven’t seen as effective programs as we should have in the past,” said Stewart. “At our workforce summit, we’re making sure business is at the table.”
The state has also stepped up to the plate in terms of workforce development through investment in training programs. Efforts are being made to engage the next generation of workers and recruit talent from outside of the state, and financial supports are available for those with a demonstrated need.
When businesses make the decision to call Central Vermont home, the Vermont Training Program is a state program that can provide flexible support for companies to invest in training for both new and existing employees. This funding mechanism has been very beneficial for many local businesses and is available for companies interested in expansion. As Stewart noted, “The bottom line is, we end up with a workforce with higher skills, which means the employees have more value, which means they can make more money, companies get more productivity out of them which gives them greater value: it’s really been a win-win for everybody.”
Because of the collective efforts of industry, education and the various levels of government, the Barre Area and Central Vermont is where professional success and personal fulfillment takes place, where the potential for prosperity is great and where the future continues to look bright.
Given that many of the collective efforts that are taking place are in their infancy, it will be exciting to see how effectively the Barre Area and Central Vermont are able to respond to the ever-changing conditions of the economy in the future, using their strategy of training, recruitment, collaboration, coordination and communication.