Recently, Gov. Jim Douglas and I met with 16 university students from Pakistan.The first question they asked was "What is Vermonts most pressing problem?"The governor answered, "demographics."
Gov. Douglas explained that Vermont has the second oldest population and the lowest birth rate of any state in our country. Combined, these two statistics present a major dilemma.
"Are there jobs in Vermont?" one inquired. The governor answered yes, especially in certain fields: engineering, medicine, high tech manufacturing and the service industries.
In fact, Vermont employers are having trouble finding the skilled workers to fill those jobs, and our state's economy is challenged as a result.
So it was good news last week when the governor announced his new initiative to persuade young, out-of-state Vermonters and graduates of our colleges and universities to return here to live, work and raise families.
Results of an April survey showed that many of them want to return to Vermont, but are worried about finding a good job and an affordable place to live.
Under the governor's plan, well work with Vermonts employers to host networking events around the region and to launch an interactive web portal designed to deliver news about jobs, housing, recreational and social events to young workers. Well also ask Vermont colleges and universities for help in reaching alumni, and creating internships for students to work with Vermont companies.
An aging population and shortage of skilled workers is a growing problem across our nation, but our second-oldest state rank and lowest birth rate require Vermont to face the challenge first.
The Pakistani students asked if they could come to Vermont. The governor explained that he thought it would be very difficult. He explained that our federal government is responsible for immigration policy.
That made me think.
Like many Americans, I have watched the immigration debate in Washington with disappointment. Its Washingtons responsibility to maintain the sovereignty of our nation's borders, and they havent. The southern border is porous and has been virtually open for many years. As a result, 12 million people are currently in our country illegally. States along our southern border are overwhelmed as they try to provide human services. Hospital emergency rooms are swamped. Crime rates in border-states have exploded. Meanwhile, immigration debate has polarized our already-polarized national politics. Congress and the Administration have each dug in their heels and have not moved to find common ground. We are not in control of our borders.
In Vermont, we need to manage our economy putting Vermonters and homecoming Vermonters first. But we could also allow more immigrants to legally live and work here. I therefore propose that we:
Continue to work for efficiencies in state government, to reduce taxes and make our state more affordable for Vermonters.
Adopt smart-growth policies, and enable homebuilders to build at prices more workers can afford.
Continue to fund and expand Next Generation scholarships and skills training for Vermonters.
Request a waiver from the federal government to grant Vermont-based residency for engineers, doctors, nurses and other specified workers, to work or bring their businesses to our state.
Vermont should implement an immigration system that connects job-openings with people who can fill them. It could be based on the Canadian system, which assigns points to an applicant based on education, chosen career field, and net worth, to measure his or her ability to contribute to life in our state.
According to research by Duke University and University of California at Berkeley, 25.3 percent of engineering and technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder. Those companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 US workers in 2005. Of all immigrant-founded companies, 26 percent have Indian founders, and nearly 80 percent of immigrant-founded companies in the U.S. were in software and innovation or manufacturing-related services.
In 2006, 24 percent of patents granted to U.S. residents were granted to foreign nationals residing in the U.S.. up from only 7.3 percent in 1998.
Theres room in Vermont for innovators like these. Our state has challenged the federal government on slavery, prescription drug purchases, air quality and other policies. It is time to add immigration to the list.
A century ago, my great grandfather, John McKenzie, founded McKenzie Meats. His first employee was a German immigrant named Gene Burnhart. Stuck at Ellis Island without a sponsor, Gene was going to be deported back to Germany when John hired him.
Because he only spoke German, no one knew Gene was a master of German sausage making, until a German-speaking Burlington mailman made the connection. Gene worked for McKenzies for the next 50 years, becoming a real leader and innovator as the company grew to employ more and more Vermonters over the years.
Throughout our history, motivated opportunity-seekers like Gene Burnhart have improved their own lives, and made America and Vermont a better place.