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Katherine Ash: Skilled trade jobs are in high demand. Vermont can seize the moment.

This commentary is by Katherine Ash, founder and principal at Second Mountain Strategies, a national economic opportunity and workforce policy consulting firm. She splits her time between Washington, D.C., and her home state of Vermont, where she previously was deputy Irene recovery officer and a field representative for a member of the federal delegation.

Our country is facing a critical shortage of skilled trades workers and Vermont is no exception. Fortunately, our brave little state is about to face an unprecedented windfall of federal funds to massively transform our public infrastructure and, by extension, our workforce. 

States have considerable power to shape how these federal investments will be used and chief among them is the creation of good jobs.

So exactly how much money can Vermont expect? Experts estimate Vermont will receive at least $2.6 billion over the next 10 years that will spur new trade jobs in broadband, highway and transportation, electric, manufacturing, and more. That’s a billion with a “B.” 

The largest chunk comes from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is expected to deliver at least $2.1 billion to rebuild Vermont roads and bridges, improve wastewater systems, modernize the climate sector, and more. 

Vermont will also receive additional funding from ARPA, the CHIPS Act, and be eligible to compete for grants from programs that include the Talent Pipeline Challenge. 

What remains to be seen is how Vermont will make good on these investments to create and sustain even better local jobs. 

To seize the moment, states will need to build new coalitions to close skill gaps; better leverage data to align programs with workforce needs; attract new workers; leverage workforce development funding to sustain job creation; and reshape the narrative. 

Here is how we can do it:

First, we need to continue our cutting-edge work around broadband infrastructure development. For example, to receive funds from the Broadband Expansion and Deployment program, states and territories are required to develop a workforce development plan to construct funded projects. Vermont is one of the first states to make this plan publicly available and is already setting a new national standard. 

With leadership from groups such as the Vermont Community Broadband Board, communities across the country are leveraging proven practices in coalition building to close skill gaps in critical career clusters. These industry sector councils are well-established in other states and enable businesses, education and training partners, and service agencies to sustain a collaborative strategy to grow segments of the workforce. 

The Vermont Talent Pipeline has also demonstrated leadership in this area and may serve as a model for other trade clusters, including wastewater, highway and transportation, and construction. 

Vermont will also need to align training programs with evolving workforce needs by better defining the workforce opportunity (and challenge) through data. Like most states, Vermont does not maintain advanced data sets on projected skill demands across industries or make public most data on Career and Technical Education outcomes by trade area. 

New funds could be used to collect more refined, disaggregated data to demonstrate priority skill needs or to close information gaps in program outcomes. In 2021, the state published a healthcare workforce development plan — offering a strong template for program alignment through data.

Vermont must also attract new workers to the trades by developing good-paying career pathways. Work-based learning and (pre-)apprenticeships are gaining critical ground in Vermont and, as a recent 7Days article highlighted, efforts are underway to extend these programs to adults. Because blue-collar jobs are historically lower-paid, traditional financial incentives (aka relocation) are unlikely to be effective. 

However, union and nonunion businesses are expanding their benefits and partnering with service providers to offer transportation, housing and more. These practices are especially important to attract a diverse workforce, including women who are less likely to enter the trades. 

Vermont could also consider building on successful models such as West Virginia’s Earn and Learn program or drawing from unique pools of talent, such as AmeriCorps, to develop new trade pathways. 

To take full advantage of federal dollars, Vermont could also use funds to examine how to leverage existing Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act workforce development funding to connect and retain workers to trade jobs. States like Maine are also working to leverage American Rescue Plan Act funds to connect workers disproportionately affected by the pandemic into the trades. If successful, these efforts could offer lessons about how to scale training for other high-demand industries and help increase participation in dislocated worker and adult education programs, which currently serve a small percentage of the eligible Vermonters.

Finally, the value of reshaping the narrative about trade careers cannot be understated. With rapid advancements in technology, the broader Career and Technical Education field — which emphasizes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and health care — is attracting a great deal of public attention, while the trades receive little. Gov. Scott has been hitting the stump to highlight this issue, which he and the Legislature backed through investments, including a $20 million bill to expose middle school students to trade jobs and a $3 million Trades Scholarship Program. This is commendable and the state could build on these successes by partnering with businesses to market the trades through ambassador programs, traveling road shows, and more. 

These once-in-a-generation federal funds have the potential to not only train the next generation of workers but to expand economic opportunity well beyond the life of our public structures. It’s time for Vermont to seize the moment.

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