Vermont needs to reverse manufacturing loss

There was some good news this week from the Vermont Department of Labor – the state's unemployment rate dropped two-tenths of 1 percent in February to 3.9 percent. That's the first time it's been below 4 percent since May 2007, before the start of the Great Recession.

"This is positive news for Vermont's economy," Gov. Peter Shumlin said in a statement. "Combined with the revised jobs numbers released last month, which showed an increase of 3,400 jobs in 2014, Vermont's economy continues its recovery and is moving in the right direction."

However, as the governor added, "We still have a lot of work to do to ensure Vermont's economy works for every single Vermonter."

Another report released this week shows some employment sectors are not fairing as well. Vermont manufacturing employment declined slightly in 2014, according to the 2015 Vermont Manufacturers Register, an industrial database and directory published by Manufacturers' News, Inc. (MNI). The data shows that Vermont lost 605 industrial jobs, or 1.3 percent, from December 2013 to December 2014, in contrast to the 1.7 percent national average gain reported by the U.S. Labor Department for the same time period.

"High business costs, global competition, and a shortage of skilled workers have made it difficult for Vermont manufacturers to climb back from the recession," said Tom Dubin, president of the Evanston, IL-based publishing company, which has been surveying industry since 1912. "However, the state is still home to a number of major manufacturing operations, including several Department of Defense suppliers."

Essex Junction accounts for the most industrial employment in Vermont, with 5,942 workers, down 1.1 percent over the survey period. Burlington ranks second with 3,441 jobs, up 2.1 percent. Brattleboro is home to 2,049 jobs, down 2.8 percent, while industrial employment in Rutland fell 5.2 percent, with the fourth-ranked city home to 1,975 jobs. Industrial employment in Williston rose 10 percent, and currently ranks fifth in the state with 1,593 jobs.

The electronics industry – the leading Vermont industry by employment – shed the most jobs, down 6.1 percent, Manufacturers' News reports. The industrial machinery sector, the state's third-largest by employment, lost 7.7 percent of its jobs. Additional losses were reported in primary metals, down 15.5 percent; printing/publishing, down 7.5 percent; furniture/fixtures, down 4 percent; and lumber/wood, down 2.9 percent.

Growth in the state's food products sector was a rare bright spot, with jobs up 8.1 percent. Vermont's food processing industry currently accounts for the second most industrial jobs, employing 5,696 people or about 14 percent of the workforce.

Employment gains were seen also in the stone/clay/glass sector, which increased 7.4 percent and in rubber/plastics, up 6.1 percent.

Other bright spots for the state included the recent establishment of Twincraft Skincare's manufacturing operation in Essex and the opening of Department of Defense supplier AirBoss Defense in Milton.

Despite these signs of growth, however, the overall picture shows Vermont is going in the wrong direction where manufacturing is concerned. We need those high-paying jobs to improve the economic prosperity of more Vermonters, not to mention the state's coffers.

Currently Vermont is home to 1,363 manufacturers employing 43,777 workers. At 11.5 percent of GDP, manufacturing still represents the largest private sector percentage of the state's gross domestic product. We need to take a longer-range view of economic development in Vermont so we can reverse the trend of losing these high-paying, highly-skilled jobs.