Jan 25, 2018

Vermont's workforce challenge and gender equality in the workplace

Policymakers and Vermonters of all political persuasions are worried about the economic impacts of Vermont's aging population and shrinking workforce. Our working-age population — the vital group that acts as our economic engine — keeps declining. Meanwhile, baby boomers will soon be aging out of the workforce. 

In order for Vermont to attract and retain the skilled workforce our economy needs to thrive, we need to make sure all Vermonters have an equal opportunity to contribute to our economy. Yet Vermont women are continually forced to leave careers and drop out of the workforce because they cannot afford or find high-quality child care.

Women still earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men and Vermont's child care shortage makes this situation worse because women are more likely to leave their jobs when families can't access child care. In fact, a recent national study found that among highly-qualified women who off-ramped from their career, 74 percent reported child care as their trigger factor. For highly-qualified men, only 26 percent reported child care as their trigger factor.

Women should not be forced to choose between a career and parenthood; we must do whatever we can to make both possible. 

As president of the Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children, I'm lucky to employ a talented, committed team that includes highly skilled women who are parents of young children. These women are critical to the Permanent Fund's success; we simply can't afford to lose these dedicated and passionate employees. That's why the Permanent Fund offers family-friendly policies, including paid family leave and child care scholarships. 

Offering family-friendly policies is one way the Permanent Fund is working to address gender equality in the workplace. We know this approach makes a difference because our employees with young children continue to be focused and invaluable members of the team. Still, Vermont's critical shortage of high-quality, affordable child care places an undue burden on families, more often falling on women. Almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need care don't have access to any regulated child care programs and nearly 80 percent don't have access to high-quality programs. This problem is keeping too many Vermont women from staying and thriving in the workforce. 

A woman who feels forced to leave her career because she can't afford child care is losing more than her annual salary; she's often also losing health insurance, the ability to save for retirement, and possible wage increases over time. This cycle perpetuates gender inequality in the workplace, which ultimately hurts our economy. 

Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, recently visited the US and was interviewed by NPR's Ari Shapiro. While discussing issues related to economic development, Shapiro wondered "if something as simple as child care makes a big difference," noting child care can be difficult to find in America, but is very robust in Norway. Prime Minister Solberg responded, "Yes. We don't want to choose between career and motherhood. That means you have to build out a helping system for the family and the benefit of that is economic growth."

There are many reasons why Vermont should invest in high-quality and affordable child care. Breaking down barriers to careers for women and allowing women to continue to be major contributors to a skilled workforce and a strong economy is one of them. Empowering the other half of our economic engine is an obvious solution to Vermont's workforce crisis. 

Rick Davis is CEO of Davis Companies and president of the Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children, a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure all Vermont children birth to five have access to high-quality, affordable early care and learning by 2025. 

Click on media outlet names to read this commentary on the websites of the Bennington Banner, Vermont Biz or VT Digger

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