There has been a consistent message from the State House this session: We need to grow Vermont’s labor force. Solving a problem of this magnitude, one that may prove to be Vermont’s largest barrier to prosperity, will require seeking and utilizing every opportunity we can. Of those solutions, directing students and adults alike to the financial security offered in skills-based occupations must be front-and-center to the conversation.

There has been a long-standing bias against those students who choose not to pursue a college degree following high school. College was declared the only way to achieve success in life, a message pushed relentlessly by our schools at the expense of marginalizing those with different learning styles and for whom a different path was correct. Normalizing and encouraging participation in skills training is a key component in realizing the full potential for prosperity in our state.

We must work with our schools to show students clear career pathways that include the trades. We must also work with the Department of Labor and other stakeholders to help facilitate adult education for those seeking to return to, or better reinforce their position in, the workforce.

The benefits from a technical education are well-known: focused and efficient curriculum; lower course costs and loan indebtedness; high post-graduation placement rates in the student’s chosen field; job security; and the potential for a very solid starting salary with benefits. For adults, vocational training can be shorter, cheaper and more accessible — a good thing for those trying to balance bettering their long-term career situation with their short-term obligations. Once the qualification has been attained, graduates of skills-training can often jump into the workforce quickly with a well-paying job with benefits.

Our skills gap and lack of qualified workers is stunting Vermont’s ability to prosper. Existing companies cannot grow without skilled employees, and new businesses are reluctant to come here knowing they will face significant hiring challenges. Simultaneously, many Vermonters are unemployed or underemployed. This means that the potential exists here to help reinvigorate our workforce.

Vermont youth, adults and the disabled currently access post-secondary learning at the lowest rates in New England. It is time to make a concerted effort to focus on the need and benefits of technical education. Providing Vermonters who want to learn with access to a comprehensive set of skills and experiences can give them a clear path to a successful career after graduation.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” In Vermont, this opportunity is technical education. Some are predicting we’ll see 1,500 bills during this two-year cycle of the Legislature, an unprecedented number by most accounts. This is why we, at Campaign for Vermont, call upon our legislators to balance all policy decisions against their role of creating a strong, modern, accessible workforce. We call upon them to ensure technical education is given the support and equal attention it deserves.

The time is now for lawmakers to honor their commitment to improving Vermont’s economy and promote educational opportunities that connect real people with real jobs.

Eric LaMontagne is executive director of Campaign for Vermont, a non-partisan and nonprofit advocacy organization. CFV focuses on its Three E’s of Prosperity: Education, Ethics and Economics.

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