Vermont has been getting headlines recently for a program that pays people up to $10,000 to relocate there and work remotely. And rightly so — it’s an interesting approach that attempts to confront a demographic challenge facing Vermont, Maine and many other states.
As Maine State Economist Amanda Rector alluded to at a BDN event in November focusing on Maine’s population trends, a strength of this approach — and maybe the whole point — is the attention such a program generates rather than the actual number of new workers it attracts.
Nevertheless, the Green Mountain State’s experience on this issue, particularly its recent move to revamp the program, can be instructive here in the Pine Tree State.
While the initial program created in 2018 offered to reimburse people up to $10,000 if they moved to Vermont and worked remotely, the newly restructured program will reimburse less — up to $7,500 — in differently targeted and arguably stronger ways. For example, rather than offering funding to remote workers, the new approach will offer reimbursement for people moving to work at companies within Vermont in fields identified by the state department of labor.
“With our historically low unemployment rate, there are many business sectors in Vermont looking for qualified candidates to fill openings,” Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said in a statement. “Businesses in the state will now have another incentive they can offer when trying to recruit people to work here.”
As of Dec. 20, according to reporting from VTDigger, this year’s program attracted more than 350 people, including family members, to 60 Vermont towns. Under the new changes, there will also now be some regional caps on the amount of reimbursement people will get for moving to more populated areas such as Burlington or Montpelier.
These changes cut to a critical point for Maine as our state looks to attract new workers: It’s not just a matter of increasing the population, but also matching and encouraging growth in the specific areas and sectors that need it.
The Vermont changes also track somewhat with comments made at the Maine Community Foundation’s annual summit, held here in Bangor on Nov. 13.
During a session on rural America and innovation, presenter Matt Dunne was asked whether he viewed the Vermont program as a success, and if he would recommend it for states like Maine. Dunne is the founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation located in Hartland, Vermont, so he’s certainly someone qualified to field that question.
“Here’s what I would say was the success, was that all of the money in the first round was used up in about two months. So clearly there was demand,” Dunne responded.
But he also cautioned that Vermont’s initial program “wasn’t focused enough.” For instance, he suggested a program that, instead of paying costs related to moving or setting up a primary residence anywhere in the state, would help people pay off existing debt or purchase a home in particular areas.
“I think you would get much higher return, and still get plenty of takers, because it is that de-risking thing that allows for someone to make the leap that they know they want to do, whether it’s coming home or moving to the place they would love to be,” Dunne told the crowd. He also stressed that Burlington, like Portland, faces housing challenges and that these types of programs should be strategic about where they encourage people to move within a state.
Dunne’s point about focus is well taken, and is reflected in some of the changes Vermont has just made to its program. Regardless of how Maine moves to attract new workers in the coming years — and it will take a multifaceted approach — this lesson about focus and strategy should not be lost.