State leaders in Vermont, from both sides of the political aisle, have long said a declining number of working-age people in the small state threatens its economic future.
A big reason for that worker shortage is difficulty accessing child care, which advocates say is a problem that has reached crisis levels.
According to the Vermont Department of Labor, employers across Vermont are eager to fill an estimated 26,000 open jobs. That number from February 2022, which is the most recent available and is based on federal statistics, matches previous record highs set in April 2021 and December 2021, Labor Department spokesman Kyle Thweatt said.
"We all need help," restaurant owner Silvio Mazzella said at a large job fair recently held at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. "Everyone around here today at the job fair needs that employee and that's the challenge."
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Advocates for overhauling childcare and early learning want doing so to be seen as critical to the state’s economic development plan, and to adding more people to the workforce.
"It’s incredibly serious," said Amy Richards, the CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, an organization pushing for affordable, high-quality child care for families across Vermont.
Richards told NECN & NBC10 Boston a lot of Vermont parents choose to stay out of the workforce, or can’t join it, because it’s too hard to find a child care program. Or if they can, it’s too expensive, Richards noted, with many reporting care can run 30 to 40% of their income.
"Our conservative estimate is today, 5,000 Vermonters — parents — are not at work because they can’t find or afford child care," Richards added. "So that’s 8,700 kids that we know of under six who don’t have access to childcare today, and the 5,000 parents who can’t be in those jobs."
In Burlington Friday, city officials joined early childhood educators in celebrating the brand-new ONE Arts Community School — creating 28 child care slots in the city’s Old North End.
"It’s a big challenge," dad Jules Wetchi said of finding child care, especially for new Americans.
Wetchi, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said he was relieved to find an opening for his son at the ONE Arts Community School.
"If you don’t have a high quality of education, I’m not sure you’re going to have good people for the next generation," Wetchi said.
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A city grant of $103,676 awarded in 2021 helped renovate and furnish the space at 294 North Winooski Avenue, plus train staff, according to the office of Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington. Scholarships are also available through the city initiative, the mayor noted.
"We are failing as a community and as a country if we are not ensuring that all of our children have the proper care," Weinberger said at the celebration. "And we simply don’t have such a system today."
Burlington has directed $500,000 in public funds to its Early Learning Initiative each year since July 2018. The initiative helps expand child care capacity and provide scholarships, the city said.
Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives in the Vermont Legislature last year agreed to take steps toward transforming the early childhood education system here — including analyzing the way operations are now and identifying possible long-term public funding solutions.
Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit, has called for affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families by 2025. The group wants to see a situation where families must not spend more than 10% of their household’s income on care.
"We’re going to get this done together, for the state," Richards pledged, emphasizing that increasing pay and benefits for workers in the early education and child care arena is vital.
As far as directing workers to open positions, the Vermont Department of Labor pointed job-seekers and employers to this website for listings of opportunities statewide.
State labor officials are also promoting the following job fairs in the coming weeks:
- River Valley Employment Fair (with River Valley Workforce Innovation Board members)
- Date: Wednesday, May 11
- Location: Riverside Middle School, 13 Fairground Road (Springfield)
- Time: 3pm – 6pm
- May Job Fest: Middlebury (with Middlebury Parks & Recreation and Addison County Workforce Alliance)
- Date: Thursday, May 19
- Location: Middlebury Rec Park, 154 Creek Road (Middlebury)
- Time: 11am – 2pm
- May Job Fest: Bennington (with HireAbility and Southwestern Regional Chamber of Commerce)
- Date: Tuesday, May 24
- Location: Deer Park, 353 North Street (Bennington)
- Time: 11am – 2pm
- Central Vermont Job Fair (with Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation)
- Date: Wednesday, June 1
- Location: Barre City Auditorium, 16 Auditorium Hill (Barre)
- Time: 10am – 3pm