Dec 21, 2020

Vt.'s transformational chance

A compelling case for why the workplace should never be the same in a post-pandemic world was made in Friday’s Messenger by Rick Valenta, of St. Albans, who argued that he, and those of his [younger] generation, would prefer to work remotely. They love their jobs. But the benefits of working from home outstrip the benefits of going into the office. Mr. Valenta’s urging will be one of many to be considered as Vermont tries to put its economic house back in order. The world as we knew it has changed and states, Vermont included, will have to reorient themselves to remain competitive. The next generation – Mr. Valenta’s – will be looking, and reacting, to places that are welcome to that process.

That means bringing broadband to places that don’t have it.

It means increased support to the state’s higher education community.

It means reorienting the state’s health care system to focus on prevention.

And it means figuring out how to deal with the state’s child care needs so that parents have safe, high-quality places to send their kids when the economy begins to reopen.

All are fundamental as Vermont battles an aging and declining population. The pandemic has been the tectonic shift in fundamentals that allows states like Vermont to adjust to the new wants and needs of tomorrow’s workplace. The inertia of the past half century has been broken. The challenge is to get out in front of what the next generation is asking for, and to avoid slipping backwards.

That’s a heavy lift. To be successful means prioritizing needs and putting aside those that are less important. We don’t have the resources to fund everything at optimum levels. It also means being strategic and acting where it gives Vermont the greatest advantage. It means protecting ourselves where we need protecting most.

Expanding broadband, protecting our investment in health care and education all qualify. But just as fundamental is the need to expand and strengthen our child care system. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force today than a year ago. Between August and September, 865,000 women left the work force. A survey from McKinsey & Company found that one in four women were considering going to part time work, reducing hours or taking a leave of absence.

There are a variety of reasons contributing to the exodus, but one of the primary culprits is a lack of high-quality, affordable child care. Here in Franklin County, for example, Let’s Grow Kids, the state’s child care advocacy organization identifies us as a “child care desert.” Much of Vermont fares as poorly if not worse.

It’s virtually impossible to ramp up the economy to prior levels if women are leaving the workforce. And women will leave the workforce if they don’t have safe places to send their children.

All states face the same circumstances, but Vermont has a distinct advantage with its early education programs and the increased political awareness of what’s needed to take the next step. And that next step is having our elected leaders place this need at the top of the agenda, understanding it will require more state resources.

This need shouldn’t be seen as a separate cause. Or a cause that takes and doesn’t give back. Figuring out how to fund a viable, high-quality child care system is at the center of figuring out how to channel the state’s demographics into something productive, fueling an economy for the next generation and beyond. How we handle this is a pivotal part of our educational challenge. The stronger our early educational system, the stronger our higher education community will become. And both are central to filling the job needs of tomorrow’s workforce, a workforce that increasingly has less and less room for those without education beyond high school.

The push back will be that it’s expensive. But expensive compared to what? Parents having to decide which one quits their job to stay home? An economy that loses a significant percentage of the workforce?

Vermont has so few areas in which it distinguishes itself as the next generation’s place to live and work. This could be one. Done correctly it could be transformational. What we must avoid is giving up before we really begin.

That’s an in-between-the-lines message being sent by our letter writer, Mr. Valenta. Let’s not relax into old habits, being limited by parchment warnings of limited resources.

That takes us nowhere.

Let’s insist on being led where prosperity will be supported by the next generation, a generation encouraged by where it sees Vermont going.

Click here to read this editorial on the St. Albans Messenger website. 

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