Updated: Jan 9, 2019
We blinked, and its a new year! And with it comes the hope and the hyperbole of a new legislative season at the State House. Economic development remains a perennial subject of a number of institutional agendas and bills. These initiatives will be up against other big items in energy, healthcare, education, agriculture and the environment.
Also this January, Vermont launches its Remote Worker program. Created in the last legislative cycle, the idea is that Vermont will pay remote workers to move to the state -- up to $5,000 per year in reimbursable expenses -- an expense potentially greater than the average income of remote workers surveyed in one study. There is enough money in the program in 2019 to reimburse up to 25 workers the full amount.
Generally speaking, the goal of the program is to attract higher-income digital professionals to the state, presumably to boost tax rolls and capture new talent. According to buzz generated in the press, another goal is to bring more young people to Vermont. At least one study suggests that the average age of a remote worker is 46; the average age of a Vermonter is 43 years old. Among the kinds of workers Vermont could expect to attract under the program, the most likely workers (by growth of remote worker employment) will be workers in medical and health, computer and IT, education and training, sales, customer service, accounting and finance and travel and hospitality.
According to the Agency of Commerce website which administers the $500,000 incentive program, qualified expenses include relocation costs, computer software or hardware, broadband access or upgrades, and membership in a coworking or similar space. Interestingly, the website and application materials do not help to connect applicants with these resources across the state.
The Vermont Technology Alliance, a group centered around the interests of Burlington's digital community, has crafted its 2019 agenda around at least two areas that intersect with the aims of the remote worker program: broadband deployment and the state's branding efforts. From the VtTA's perspective, broadband delivered to Vermont's new remote workers' potentially remote rural addresses will be a good thing. The effort has been compared in significance to Vermont's rural electrification push from 1939 through the 1960's. (There are limitations to this analogy; we might write them up in a future post). The state's brand, the VtTA would avow, needs a tech twist.
But here's what I think is missing in the discussion: a commitment to doubling down on the things Vermont is already really good at. These include raising healthy kids, protecting our air and water, strengthening local food systems, encouraging Main Street entrepreneurship, supporting active lifestyles, mainstreaming renewable energy, and cultivating vibrant, creative communities.
More than anything else, my bet is that young workers want to do work that doesn't suck. Younger workers are more interested than ever in jobs that don't harm the planet, mess up our bodies, exploit or oppress others, or produce another useless widget to fill our landfills. A significant share of young people seek work that is engaging, provides opportunity for growth, and enlivens purpose and creativity in life. And younger workers are looking to do it in places where opportunities to find meaning and connection through exciting experiences with others abound.
Vermont's economic agenda should be the expression of our culture. A culture that values human beings for who we are, not the vagaries of what we do.
As one person put it to me a few years ago, Vermont’s economy should be an experience engine. The idea stuck. And as it happens, this is exactly where Vermont leads. At full tilt, such an agenda could even lead to commitments as zany as broadband-free territories. There will come a day when the ability to bathe in a forest free from any signals will be kind of a big deal. So, a more thoughtful economic development agenda might ask questions like, "Where is broadband most needed? How can we target the deployment of premium broadband services to drive concentrated economic development and growth?"
Vermont should be investing more in the areas that differentiate our state, not in a playbook ripped from conventional economic development practice. Here are five specific ways I think the economic development agenda can invest in the kind of work that many younger workers would enjoy while retaining talent:
Direct investment to the infrastructure of independent creativity. The state promotes coworking and similar spaces as a deductible expense; it does little to support the existence of these spaces directly. While 25 new workers in a town like Bradford could make a big difference for the business, it is unlikely to do so either distributed across the landscape or concentrated in Burlington. Invest in production studios, coworking spaces, makerspaces and similar shared work environments. Promote these assets and help them grow their visibility and markets.
Direct investment in local independent creatives. Vermont still has no mechanism to support, retain and grow its indigenous digital talent. The same amount applied to the remote worker program could be directed toward the state's emerging and established workers in digital media -- film and video, game and interactive design, app development and more.
Expand Vermont's marketing resources. Rather than change our brand (we have a very strong brand), expand the resources available to promote more diverse facets of the state's narrative. For example, what if the Agency of Commerce provided help to get game developers and their product to big game venues in the same way the state gets our dairy, manufacturing and tourist sectors to industry gatherings around the country.
Reduce the cost of learning. Make Vermont a haven for life-long learners who understand that running up six figure debt for four years of mixed quality education is a bankrupt model. Help creative and entrepreneurial talent succeed by investing in educational pathways that parallel personal and professional development, making it easy and affordable for anyone to acquire and advance skills in the on-demand economy.
Make investment in Vermont attractive. Design financial strategies that attract new capital to Vermont. The state has an excellent credit rating along with strong local and state-wide financial institutions that have plenty of cash. We also have a quiet financial elite that manages a startling amount of wealth. The state should be working double time to design policies that make it worthwhile to reinvest private wealth in the next generation of digital startups and growth companies.
One of the great risks to our state is that the qualities that have made it a green gem of the east are threatened in the modern economy. Housing sprawl is carving up a landscape that is the basis of inspiration for artists and hikers alike. Paved roads to new development drive up maintenance costs while increasing damage to watersheds and other fragile habitats. Forest fragmentation threatens the protected wildlife that brings our woodlands alive. Housing development has led to patterns of farm consolidation that concentrates runoff spoiling our rivers and lakes.
We're also looking at dramatic impacts on the youth experience in Vermont. School consolidation is requiring young people to spend more time on busses, traveling to distant schools lacking community connection and governance. While we don't know the developmental harm this can cause in the long-run, what seems obvious is that to a dynamic of rural isolation is added a quality of community fragmentation that breeds greater apartness and anonymity. With this can come the hidden spread of loneliness and depression.
Overall, I believe that Vermont has gifts worth preserving. Our economic development agenda should identify really smart points of leverage, and seek nuanced understanding of how to target growth while managing trade-offs. This kind of finely-tuned strategy is exactly what a state the size of Israel (with only 8 percent of its population) should be really good at. If nothing else, perhaps its time to give legislators real resources they can direct into solid research and policy development processes.
I hope to see some legislation this year that responds to and enshrines a vision of economic development with some soul -- a deep commitment to human conviviality that balances the demands of modern commerce with humane priorities and a respect for our environmental inheritance. Its time to invest in economic development choices that will ensure Vermont doesn't become the playground for the tech-savvy well-to-do and leaves ordinary people with an empty backpack.