Guest Column: Equity is the path to economic growth

 By Betsy Bishop

Every day there is a news story about policies Vermont organizations are implementing to further diversity, equity and inclusion. Many organizations, including the Vermont Chamber, are focusing on this internally and programmatically to do our part to foster equity and inclusion in our areas of influence. 

And yet, recently, I’ve seen reports of public slurs and hate directed at people of color. This is most disturbing when we hear about it at school events because these students — all of them — are our future.

We cannot abide this intolerance. Vermont’s economic growth and prosperity is dependent on our ability to embrace all people. Today’s students are our customers, our future workforce, our future leaders, our future entrepreneurs, and our neighbors. As a business leader, I encourage businesses to spread the message that Vermont only works if it works for everyone.

Our current demographics are challenging, and we must welcome a growing and changing population to have a bright future with healthy economic growth that complements our deep values around environmental sustainability and a just society. We want our economy, society and environment to thrive together.

Vermont consistently ranks as one of the oldest and whitest states in the nation. Before the pandemic, our partners at the Vermont Futures Project identified that Vermont needed 10,000 more workers in the labor force. That number is even higher now.

According to their data, since the 2008 recession, Vermont has struggled from the dual challenges of rural flight and an aging population. Lifestyle amenities and urban job opportunities draw workers away from rural areas, while a generation of people are also retiring from the workforce.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released data this month that shows we have 23,000 open jobs in Vermont — exacerbated by the pandemic. We simply need more people here. We must welcome all people into our communities as our neighbors and co-workers to help sustain and grow this beautiful state. Changing demographics are not only a national trend, but also a gift and opportunity for Vermont.

At the Vermont Chamber, we are doing our part. We are advocating for resources for BIPOC-owned businesses, diversifying our board of directors and developing programming to help small businesses create and advance a culture of belonging. We are also working to ensure state leaders continue providing worker incentive programs and make policy changes that attract military veterans to Vermont to strengthen our workforce.

The work to create a more equitable Vermont starts in schools. Teachers are helping students become their best selves so they can one day lead Vermont with integrity. The next generation should enter the workforce with diversity, equity and inclusion in their hearts as fundamental principles.

In a recent NPR interview, former President Barack Obama said that optimism must be extended to people. “Sometimes we put (other people) in a box and we assume that they’re never going to change, and I reject that,” Obama said. “I think the country has … shown itself capable of changing.”

If we want to secure a strong economic future and attract new residents, it’s our collective responsibility to make Vermont the best place it can be — free of intolerance and full of inclusion — a place where we recognize that our fates are tied together and strive for shared success.

For these reasons and more, embracing diversity and promoting equity is critical to Vermont’s economic health and future. We are raising our voice. Have you?

Betsy Bishop is president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. She lives in East Montpelier. 

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