BURLINGTON, Vt. — Vermont has a labor problem — its workforce is one of the oldest in the nation, and it's dwindling. To combat the decline, the state has launched a new financial program to attract younger workers.
With the U.S. workforce nearing full employment, Vermont's Remote Worker Grant Program is offering incentives to workers who do the majority of their work remotely from a home office or coworking space to keep their jobs and relocate to the Green Mountain State. The grant program, which began in January, can reimburse qualified workers for their relocation expenses up to $10,000 over two years. There's no age limit, even though a goal is to attract new and potentially younger workers.
"We have incredibly low unemployment, we hear from the business community all the time that they're looking for workers and skilled workers. This seems to be one small piece of the puzzle to try and get new people to come to our state," Democratic state Sen. Michael Sirotkin said. "It's hard for Vermont to compete with states like California and New York. We can't obviously offer enough incentives to bring in Amazon second headquarters like Long Island City [New York] was about to do, so we found a small niche for ourselves with this program."
So far, 56 remote worker applications have been approved, totaling 140 new residents, including families. The average age of applicants is 38, and the average grant is around $3,800.
Collin Palkovitz, 37, is one of them. The program has meant some $4,500 back in his family's pocket just for making the move.
For the past seven years, Palkovitz has worked for a company called Pure Charity, based in Bentonville, Arkansas. He began his career on site as the company got off the ground, but his plan was always to make the switch to remote worker.
"I really value working remotely, it just innately enables me to be wherever I want to be, and to have my family be with me in a setting where we choose a location and a culture," he said.
The family made its way to Topanga, California, as Palkovitz began his remote career with the nonprofit technology company, but eventually it was time to purchase a house and they dreamed of owning land. The couple packed up their two children and dog into an RV and headed across the country for more than a year in search of a new location to call home. They traveled some 25,000 miles and eventually settled on Vermont. Aside from a progressive community and an abundance of land, Palkovitz was lured by the Remote Worker Grant Program.
"The program is designed to attract younger families and people who are working remotely, potentially in industries that are not broadly represented in the state," he said. "I think that is really compelling for Vermont."
Luring younger workers is key for Vermont in order to diversify its tax base and labor force. Vermont's state bond rating was recently downgraded by Fitch to AA+ from AAA, citing the state's demographics as a deciding factor. "Vermont's population is older than most states and growth has been relatively limited," Fitch said. "The state's labor force has been flat to declining over the past decade, in contrast to slow growth at the national level." Moody's gave the state a similar downgrade in October 2018 due to aging demographics.
Vermont has one of the highest median ages in the country at 42.7, according to Census data from 2016. Its state capital, Montpelier, is among the least populous capitals in the U.S.
Come January, the state will up its game in recruiting residents. A New Worker Grant program will launch for individuals who move to Vermont to work full time for employers that are based in the state, including Darn Tough Vermont. The family-owned firm has been manufacturing socks for three generations and is committed to staying in the state. But with its remote location and Vermont's aging workforce and tight labor market, finding workers can be a challenge.
The company offers competitive pay, beginning at $12 an hour for entry-level workers and $15 to $20 an hour for more advanced roles, with benefits including health care, 401(k) plans and paid time off. It's also boosted recruiting at hiring fairs and is offering bonuses for workers along with training and skill upgrading to allow for growth within the brand.
"We are continuing to ramp up our hiring, our sales are projected to grow double digits," said Brooke Kaplan, Darn Tough's director of marketing. "The program is an innovative way of driving awareness — some people may only loosely know about Vermont — but it is a great place to live and raise a family. We need to work and partner with the state to get workers out here in Northfield."
Reimbursements can reach $7,500 under this new portion of the state-funded program. Today, Palkovitz says the program and the move to Vermont have been a great change of pace for his family. They live in Pawlet, on a 64-acre property that used to be a meditation retreat and has ponds and creeks.
"It's very peaceful and secluded and you can feel that," he said. "The kids spend afternoons in the pond, playing in the creek catching frogs and snakes — they're raising chickens and bunnies. It's been exactly what we were looking for."