By Alicia Freese for Seven Days
One of the more ambitious ideas in the modest agenda Gov. Phil Scott proposed in his January 23 budget address was a $3.2 million campaign to convince people to move to Vermont.
Scott and his administration say they would use digital technology to identify and recruit individuals who already have some connection to the state, offer financial incentives to get them to move, and convert visitors to residents through what they’re calling “economic development tourism.”
First, however, administration officials will need to convince skeptical lawmakers that they can deliver a widely shared — but long-elusive — goal of spurring more migration to the Green Mountains.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that 918 more people moved out of Vermont than moved in last year. The last time the migration trend was positive was 2004, when the state gained a whopping 15 people.
Secretary of Commerce Michael Schirling acknowledged the difficulty of reversing that trend: “We’re not asking people to buy a box of Cheerios. We’re asking them to put their stuff in a truck and move to Vermont.”
The governor and his team maintain that the state must recruit more working-age residents to expand Vermont’s declining labor force. Schirling said new technology can help them succeed where past administrations have failed.
“What I think makes this whole approach very different is that we’re not looking to … do this giant marketing campaign to everybody in the world,” said Dustin Degree, Scott’s special assistant and executive director of workforce expansion.
Degree has worked on a plan for the last two months with Sarah Buxton, director of workforce policy and performance at the state Department of Labor. Buxton said Census data show that roughly 200,000 native Vermonters live in other states. The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, which provides grants and loans to Vermont students, has 24,000 clients who reside elsewhere.
Just as diaper companies can identify new mothers based on their online activity, Vermont officials would be able to direct digital ads — on platforms such as Facebook — at people who were born or attended college in Vermont. (Schirling promises that the uninterested would be able to opt out.)
Even so, William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said he’s skeptical that such a marketing campaign would alter migration patterns. “It’s nice on the fringes to do those things,” Frey said, but fundamentally, “people want to make sure they have employment.”
To that end, Scott’s team wants to create what the governor described in his speech as a “gateway portal of information on jobs, schools, housing and recreation.”
The website would also connect prospective residents with “relocation agents” — Department of Labor employees trained to help them find jobs. The Scott administration is asking for $1.5 million for the marketing and the website.
For those who need more of a nudge, Scott proposed $1 million worth of incentives, though the administration has yet to decide what those will be.
Degree said his first idea was to give people a free gallon of maple syrup. Subsequent proposals have been more substantive than light amber; they include paying for moving costs and offering tax credits to home buyers.
Buxton noted that the state may also offer a referral bonus — Vermonters could earn cash or perhaps a ski pass by recruiting family and friends to move to the state.
“It’s an intriguing idea,” said Frank Sadowski, a partner at Gallagher, Flynn & Company in South Burlington, who oversees the consulting firm’s human resources division. “Companies do this kind of thing all the time.”
Scott’s proposal also includes $700,000 for Stay to Stay, a program that will take tourists on a daylong tour of the state’s economic amenities — thriving businesses, maker spaces — in an attempt to convince them to return permanently.
Sadowski supports that concept, too. “People know of Ben & Jerry’s and Seventh Generation … but we’ve got a lot of small companies that are pretty invisible outside their industry,” he said. “Anything that will create more visibility for the good jobs and good companies here is going to be a plus.”
Former governor Jim Douglas also tried to act as a matchmaker between wayward Vermonters and local businesses looking to hire workers. As part of an initiative called PursueVT, his administration ran a marketing campaign and held several events in Boston for people who’d left the state.
Did it lure people back? “Obviously not enough,” Douglas conceded. “We’ve continued to struggle with growing our workforce and growing our population.”
Still, Douglas supports Scott’s plan: “I think it’s worth another try,” he said.
Vermont, of course, is far from the first state to attempt to market itself to outsiders. Asked for evidence that this approach works, Schirling pointed to South Dakota, where a similar effort called Dakota Roots has been ongoing since 2006.
That state runs a website with resources about jobs and housing, and it employs staff who essentially serve as job coaches for prospective residents. South Dakota has also adopted some less technical approaches, such as using alumni lists to identify college graduates who have left the state — and sending them Christmas cards.
“We’ve had really good results recruiting people back to South Dakota,” said Marcia Hultman, the state’s secretary of labor and regulation.
Hultman provided data showing that the state has welcomed 4,770 new workers since the program started. But she didn’t respond to subsequent questions about how the state determines whether the new residents came because of its efforts.
How Vermont officials would make such a determination is also unclear.
“If we were to get a couple hundred new Vermonters in the first 12 months, I think that would be a great starting point,” Schirling told reporters last week. But while officials can track the number of new tax filers, he conceded that they don’t have the ability to match the names on tax returns to people drawn to Vermont by the state’s campaign.
The administration’s plan “seems to still be under development,” observed Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Personally, I like the idea of a targeted approach [to] people who have connections to Vermont,” said Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. But he also noted that “it’s not enough to put a concept out there. They need to put some more meat on the bones.”
Some in the business community suggest the state’s money would be better spent elsewhere.
“From our perspective, there is a workforce problem in Vermont and clearly a demographic problem that needs to be addressed, so we’re supportive of the governor addressing those important issues,” said Dan Barlow, a lobbyist for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. “A lot of these efforts fall short,” he added. “Sometimes they’re gimmicks; sometimes there’s not enough money put behind it.
“We wonder, could this investment be better made in improving our childcare system? Could it go toward increasing access to health care or improving telecom services in Vermont?” Barlow asked rhetorically.
The state would have a more compelling marketing pitch, he reasoned, if it could accurately claim to have a state-of-the-art childcare program: “You’d have to confront bigger policy questions with that approach, but I think the payoff will be much better.”
Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover) had a different concern: “You might be able to get people to live in rural areas — if they had access to internet.”
Without such investments, the Northeast Kingdom representative worries that any new residents the state attracts will settle in Chittenden County. “I don’t see this as a strategy that’s going to pick up the struggling parts of the state,” Young said.
Some lawmakers pointed to an inherent contradiction in Scott’s approach, asking whether it’s worth spending money to market the state’s strengths when the state’s governor uses his platform to broadcast its economic woes.
“We’re never going to grow this state in a way that is appealing to future generations if we continue to look in the mirror and remark on every flaw we see,” said Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction). “We have doom-and-gloom demographic talk in every press conference. I’ve never met anyone who wants to move to a doom-and-gloom state.”