Following several media reports in national outlets including Bloomberg that said IBM is considering selling its microelectronics manufacturing division, an economic development body serving Vermont's most populous region called on Vermont to do more to support and protect jobs at the IBM campus in Essex Junction. "If we want to retain jobs, we need to think differently," said Frank Cioffi of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation.
As a publicly-traded company, IBM has remained tight-lipped about any potential for a sale of its chip manufacturing division. Cioffi said its plant in Vermont turns out small chips that are likely in devices many American consumers use every day, including many smartphones. "We have the best products in the world," Cioffi said of the quality of the chips being produced in Essex Junction.
To buffer against potential job losses in any sale or partnership that may happen involving the current IBM campus, the GBIC wants the see the state foster a globally competitive operation. Its long list of recommendations outlined Monday in a "Vermont Action Plan" included:
- Additional career training to maintain a desirable and highly-skilled workforce
- Identifying a separate public buyer for the property's valuable wastewater treatment plant and other infrastructure
- Tax stabilization or suspension
- Improving transportation around the site
- Granting $4.5-million from the Vermont Enterprise Fund, a new job retention and attraction fund, to IBM campus ownership in support of the local workforce and campus infrastructure
GBIC said the stakes are high for the future of the plant and campus, no matter whose name is on the sign. More than 4,000 people now work at IBM, according the GBIC and state labor officials. A recent GBIC study said that IBM's payroll directly or indirectly supports 8,000-10,000 Vermont families, injecting $1-billion into the state's economy.
"I would be shocked if there was a complete announced closing of the plant," said Patricia Moulton, Vermont's commerce secretary.
Moulton called the state "nimble," able to respond to any changes that may come at the IBM site. IBM has historically been one of the state's largest private employers, with a workforce that peaked at more than 8,000 workers over a decade ago.
Gov. Shumlin told reporters his administration has already worked with the utility Green Mountain Power to freeze electric rates for the high-load transmission area in order to help IBM or a future high-demand user of the property rein in one of the trickiest operating costs. "We're on a heightened level of concern and focus," Shumlin said of his administration's attention on IBM. "The challenge for all of us is to have as many tools in the toolbox as we can to try to keep as many of those jobs as we possibly can in Vermont."
The GBIC said it believes in the people and history of innovation at the IBM plant, and wants to see that continue. It is still unclear what form that will take, however. Moulton said it is possible the status quo may be maintained, or a buyer could be found to use the property for another busy purpose. “It may not be all doom and gloom,” Moulton said. “Who knows?”