MONTPELIER — David Lahr, Vermont’s new workforce development director, has seen unemployment rates rise and fall in Vermont in the 30 years since he first entered the field. The current Vermont rate of 3.1 percent is indisputably preferable to the 7 percent rate seen in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, yet challenges remain.
“We have a pretty good gauge on which industries will be expanding and hiring in the next 20 years,” Lahr said. “As the director of workforce development for the Vermont Department of Labor, I plan to focus on three broad priorities: One: serving employers and employees with equal energy. We need to make sure that business’ workforce needs are being met by providing timely and effective recruitment and training solutions that are relative to Vermont’s business environment. We also need to enhance our placement and training services in a way that provides a positive experience for Vermonters seeking a career.”
Second, he said, is education. He said nearly $60 million in workforce development money flows through the state of Vermont each year to nearly 61 programs. The state will work in collaboration with educators and occupational skills training organizations to ensure that individuals understand the services training opportunities available to them.
Finally, Lahr said, the state needs to develop tailored career paths for people seeking career opportunities. The path to a career or full-time employment does not look the same from one individual to the next. The Regional American Jobs Centers (of which there are 12 in Vermont), are equipped to help tailor a path that meets the needs of Vermonters. “Whether it be helping with occupational skills development assistance, resume building or support services, we are equipped and ready,” said Lahr.
With individual towns seeing a greater or lesser level of unemployment (Woodstock, 5 percent; White River Junction, 2.3 percent; Barre-Montpelier, 2.6 percent) one of those tasks is to fully utilize the state’s recruitment system while developing new strategies that meet employer’s needs while exceeding expectations, he said. Improving methodologies that effectively tie job openings to Vermonters who want and need to work is a critical component to maintain a healthy Vermont economy.
One focus of the Labor Department’s Workforce Development Division is engaging the at-risk youth population, he said. Right now, 75 percent of the Workforce Opportunities and Innovation Act youth funds are required to be expended on that population, in collaboration with community partners and state agencies. Young people considered at-risk are those aging out of foster care, leaving incarceration, homeless, having substance abuse issues or those who are unemployed and disenfranchised from their community.
“The issues and barriers that some of Vermont’s young people endure are, to say the least, significant,” said Lahr, “VDOL’s Workforce Development Division must work in close collaboration with partner agencies and community organizations to mitigate the challenges young Vermonters face today. Any system we develop to assist this population must be sustainable, flexible and nimble enough to meet the needs of young Vermonters over the long run.”
The state continues to work closely with partners in surrounding states and the U.S. Department of Labor, who offer guidance, he added. The overarching message is that Vermont must work collaboratively with partner agencies and nonprofit organizations to serve Vermont businesses and residents in a seamless fashion.
“I don’t think we have the luxury any longer of working independently from one another. Most best practices rest on the premise that through strong and meaningful collaborations among organizations engaged in developing economic opportunities for both individuals seeking employment and businesses who need qualified workers demonstrate greater success over the long haul. We are more successful together than we are apart, a thread that runs through many successful models,” he said.
Encore workers (aged 55 and older) are re-entering the labor market for a variety of reasons. Employers who look for employees that already possess the soft skills needed to be successful in the workplace find those traits in Encore workers. Employers need employees they can depend on. Some of those traits include showing up for work on time; knowing how to be a productive member of a team; knowing how to take direction, work independently, add value to the existing culture in a business; and treat customers, co-workers and supervisors with respect.
With “Fair Market Rent” of $1,139 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in Vermont, renters need to earn $21.90 an hour to afford a place to live. The minimum wage in Vermont is $10 per hour and will increase to $10.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2018.
According to Lahr, “Many jobs are available in the trades, including electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilating, and newer technologies, such as solar and wind energy.” In many cases, enthusiastic employees with only a high school education can reach $15 to $20 per hour with additional training. Information on training for these occupations is available at the resource centers around the state, or from the state’s apprenticeship coordinator.
Industries currently seeking employees include the heating fuel industry, for a wide variety of positions. Presently, there are opportunities around Vermont for heating service technicians and drivers. NSA Industries, of St. Johnsbury, is a precision machining, metal fabricating company which is seeking welders and people with other skills.
“Those are just two examples of opportunities available now to Vermonters seeking a career. I encourage individuals seeking work to visit our job centers and explore the career opportunities available to them,” said Lahr.
Through the job centers the department works closely with Vermont Technical College, the University of Vermont and Community College of Vermont and other training providers in encouraging and assisting career seekers as they explore a variety of different occupational pipelines that have been developed by the schools.
In conclusion Lahr said, “Good work has been done, good work is being done, and great work will be done, as it relates to developing Vermont’s workforce. It’s not about one organization carrying the load, it’s about all of us who are engaged in workforce and economic development working together to build a system that is relevant, nimble and supports our employers and residents.”