A recent survey shows college graduates are leaving Vermont because they think the state has a bad jobs outlook. Depending on which employment data they look at, the situation may be even worse than they think.
In a survey conducted by the Vermont Department of Labor and St. Michael’s College, more than 60 percent of graduates, and 75 percent of seniors, said they planned to leave Vermont after college — or said they already left.
Just 39.8 percent of graduates said they were staying in Vermont post-graduation, and only 24.5 percent of seniors said they plan to stay, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Among graduates who already left, 36.6 percent cited a “reported lack of job availability” as the reason for leaving. Of seniors who plan to leave, 38.1 percent said a “reported lack of available jobs” would be a key factor.
Responding to the news, Gov. Peter Shumlin blasted negative “perceptions” and touted 2,000 job openings among employers who attended the Labor Department’s mid-September job fair. Cabot, General Dynamics, Green Mountain Power and Dealer.com, among other companies, are “clamoring for the exact graduates who are leaving our state,” Shumlin said.
Despite Shumlin’s protestation, state and federal labor data suggest the students may be on to something.
According to forecasts from the Vermont Department of Labor, occupations with the highest number of projected annual openings in Vermont are cashiers (539), personal-care aides (370), food preparation and fast-food workers (362), retail sales people (344), waiters (332), carpenters (202), registered nurses (183), maids and house cleaners (171), landscapers and groundskeepers (154) and child-care workers (152). Of these occupations, nursing alone requires a college degree.
While the department’s list of “fast growing” occupations in Vermont includes statisticians, information security analysts and food scientists, just 15 openings were projected for all three occupations.
The forecast appears to lend support to those who believe economic growth must become a top priority of the state.
“We’re losing the demographic in Vermont, we’re losing that battle right now. We need to encourage growth,” Lt. Gov. Phil Scott told Vermont Watchdog. “I’ve been talking about increasing economic activity for five years. It seems to fall on deaf ears.”
“People are struggling to make ends meet in Vermont, and they’re working two or three jobs to do that. And they can’t pay their property taxes and put fuel in their tanks. What we need is more business enterprises,” Scott said.
To counter the supposedly misguided perceptions of students, Shumlin pointed to Vermont’s low unemployment rate of 3.6 percent. While the rate is the fourth best in the nation, a deeper dive into labor statistics tells a different story about jobs growth in the state.
Since the Great Recession, the total number of employed individuals in Vermont has gone down. In August 2007, the number of employed Vermonters was 338,096. As of last month, the number has dropped to 336,214.
Mathew Barewicz, Vermont’s labor market information chief, attributes the sagging employment number to changing demographics, not poor job growth.
“The employment statistics have been going down recently, and when you look at why that is, it’s demographically driven,” Barewicz told Vermont Watchdog. “It’s a national conversation as well as a Vermont conversation that there’s an aging of the workforce and baby boomers are retiring.”
He added that Vermont also has a lower birth rate than the national average.
“So, it’s less people working, but not necessarily less jobs.”
Whether the decline is due to aging or to lack of new jobs, the numbers are discouraging.
While Shumlin points to the standard unemployment rate as evidence of job opportunity, alternate unemployment statistics are getting major play in the presidential race. U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., claims the national unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, not the current 5.1 percent rate commonly reported. His number closely mirrors the U.S. Department of Labor’s U-6 unemployment measure, which includes classic unemployed, part-timers who want full-time work and marginally attached workers.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump says the national unemployment rate is 42 percent. Trump’s number comes by counting every working-age adult who doesn’t have a job.
In defining the standard unemployment rate, the Vermont Labor Department’s glossary states: “This is NOT the percentage of the population who are unemployed, but rather an estimate of the percentage of those who want to work, are able to work, and are actively seeking work but are unable to find employment.”
Since the standard unemployment rate covers only a small percentage of people without jobs — people who say they looked for work in the past month — piecing together Vermont’s real unemployment situation requires additional labor data.
According to labor force data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Vermont has 515,472 working-age individuals. Of that number, 336,214 Vermonters are employed, and another 12,509 say they are unemployed but actively seeking work. Combined, the two groups comprise Vermont’s current labor force of 348,723.
As shown in the table above, Vermont’s labor force of 348,723 is just 67.7 percent of the total number of all working-age individuals in the state. That percentage, known as the “labor force participation rate,” is also down significantly since the Great Recession.
The remaining 166,749 of working-age Vermonters generally fall into three camps: retirees, slackers and stay-at-home family. These jobless persons — 32.3 percent of working-age adults — are excluded from both the unemployment rate and the labor participation rate.
Since Vermont has 94,631 retired workers, that leaves 72,118 working-age Vermonters —14 percent of the working-age population — who don’t work and aren’t looking for a job.
While these unemployed people exist, none show up in Shumlin’s 3.6 percent unemployment number.
“There is no one number that’s going to really tell you what the overall economic health is,” Barewicz said. “The unemployment rate is just one tool, and it’s only going to give you a small keyhole look at a much more complicated concept.”
“What young people should be looking at is occupational projections, and looking to their communities, local businesses and neighbors and friends, and just having conversations. … Data can only tell you what’s going to be growing faster or where the number of opportunities are going to be, or what the wage rates are going to be. It can’t tell you if you’re going to be happy in a job.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org