Volunteer group says otherwise
By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org
RUTLAND—In 2014, Heather Robertson moved to Vermont from Los Angeles with her partner, a professor of film studies at Castleton University. Robertson says that first year proved to be a challenge.
They didn’t know anyone and had gone from living in a city of nearly 4 million people to Poultney, a town of less than 4,000. But the following year they moved closer to Rutland, and Robertson, who studied writing at Emerson College and works for a content marketing agency, got involved with Rutland Young Professionals. Robertson will chair the group’s second annual young professionals summit at the Paramount Theatre on Oct. 15.
Since its inception in 2013, Rutland Young Professionals, an all-volunteer group committed to the region’s economic revitalization, has been battling the perception that there are few if any opportunities in Rutland.
“I think it’s completely unfounded,” said Robertson. “Rutland is full of immense creative talent.” To prove her point, Robertson created an Instagram account, @Rutland_VT, to “curate beautiful photos of Rutland County.” It’s full of lovely rural images—the kind Vermont is famous for—and shots of Rutland’s cityscape. The account has nearly 5,000 followers.
Robertson hopes the summit can do something similar: highlight the good work happening in Rutland and the state and inspire others to get involved. Last year’s summit drew 125 people from around Vermont, including guests U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and House Speaker Shap Smith.
This year’s event will feature a variety of workshops, a panel of policymakers moderated by journalist Garrett Graff, and a keynote speech by Brad Cohen, senior brand strategist at Mozilla. Registration for the full-day summit is $20, and the group is also offering scholarships for college students interested in attending.
According to Tyler Richardson, assistant director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., the terms “young” and “professional” are elastic. “Anyone interested in building their career in Vermont for years to come is welcome,” Richardson said.
For the last several years the message has been, careers do not exist here, said Mathew Barewicz, economic and labor market information chief at the Vermont Department of Labor. But that narrative is misleading, he added.
As he travels the state, Barewicz said employers of all stripes are telling him they’re looking to hire qualified workers and grow their businesses. Barewicz sees this as an enormous opportunity and says conferences like the Young Professionals Summit “can help get the message out.”
Jane Kolodinsky, director of the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, said the notion that there is a mass exodus of young people from Vermont is also misleading. The flow has gone both ways, and according to Kolodinsky the state’s overall population is relatively stable. There are declines in rural populations in certain counties and regions, but that is a trend playing out across the country and indeed globally.
Kolodinsky knows that Vermont’s population is aging, but she believes the state is uniquely positioned to attract young families. Its recreational opportunities and access to nature are well known, and increasingly those features are being viewed as economic assets.
“The place-based economy is becoming more and more important not only for employees but employers,” Kolodinsky said. “And Vermont is a really great place to have a place-based economy.” The challenge, she said, is linking the job seekers with the job providers.
There are still challenges to attracting young people and families to the state. Of the young families that do come to Vermont many settle in areas that are already thriving (like Burlington) and leave places like Rutland out.
While the state’s overall population is relatively stable, Rutland’s has been declining for the last two decades. According to figures from the Department of Labor, Rutland County could see a 12 percent drop in its population over the next 15 years. Even the most optimistic projection for the period 2010-2030 shows a decline of 5 percent. Barewicz said this isn’t unique to Rutland or even Vermont. There’s been an ongoing trend of migration from rural areas to urban centers such as Boston and Burlington and to the American South.
Rutland’s longevity then depends on people moving to the region. Rutland Young Professionals, which has about 129 dues-paying members, would like to put its city and region on the map as a destination for families and new businesses.
Robertson is hopeful for that prospect. Asked if she misses L.A., Robertson said, yes, but she’d never go back. The quality of life in Vermont is too good to give up, she added.
Volunteer group says otherwise