Young people, we’re told all the time, are leaving the state. It’s a good story, except for one thing.
By Melissa Pasanen and Bill Anderson
Photographed by Daria Bishop
When David Parker, the 30-year-old vice president of strategy development for Dealer. com, headed out of state in 2000 from his hometown of Williston, he was looking to spread his wings and explore beyond Vermont.“It’s natural,” he says,“to want to experience new places.”
Since middle school, Parker had shown a knack for computers — he was featured in a National Public Radio segment about how kids were surpassing their teachers in technology — and after graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School, he attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. By the fall of 2003, he was at a crossroads: take a high- tech job that was being offered in Hartford, Conn., or return to Vermont where he had the opportunity to help develop a nonprofit focused on building the tech sector in the state. Choosing home, he worked with Vermont HITEC, became an adjunct faculty member for the University of Vermont and several colleges, co-founded the Vermont Software Developers Alliance and, eventually, joined Dealer.com.
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At Dealer.com, Parker is part of a fast-growing business that provides digital marketing systems for the automotive industry, and he works in a setting, with about 750 other employees, that has all the toys and perks of Silicon Valley culture: brightly colored warrens of open cubicles, organic café with espresso, on-site gym, rooftop solarium with putting green and a renovated building that, it almost goes without saying, is a model of green design.
In short, Dealer.com is everybody’s idea of what Vermont needs to stop young people from leaving the state.
Trace back to the turn of the 20th century, and you find an anxiety already in place that Vermont — rough-hewn, isolated, cold, mountainous and rural — is falling behind the times and losing its luster for young people. As described in “Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont” by Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions and P. Jeffrey Potash, Vermont at the onset of the modern era was characterized by “a largely rural work force, relatively low incomes, few urban centers, transportation problems, and a population that had hardly increased in 50 years” — a description strikingly similar to the laments we hear to- day. The authors continue: “Between 1910 and 1920, the state would actually lose population for the first decade in its history. Even more ominous, the percentage of the working age population (15 to 40 years) would decline while that of older citizens increased.” A quarter century went by, but still “ Vermonters had not put behind them the worries of 1900. It remained a poor state, des- perate for growth, its population shrinking, its farms dropping in number, its industry stagnant.”
In 1927, the epic flood struck, then the Great Depression in 1929. With conditions deteriorating, the Vermont Commission on Country Life published a report in 1931 asserting the need to protect not only the state’s natural beauty and agricultural heritage but also “the ‘hardy pioneer stock’ that had been out-migrating for the past 100 years and needed to be replenished. … It is the patriotic duty of every normal couple to have children in sufficient number to keep up to par the ‘good old Vermont stock.’” By 1933, another idea was hatched — to build a 260-mile highway atop the Green Mountains. Its chief proponent, Col. William J. Wilgus of Ascutney, argued that there would be many spinoff benefits and that “the attractive occupations thereby offered young Vermonters would hold them to their native heath.”
In the context of the first half of the century, such concerns were not misplaced. Forgetting, as we might, that child labor existed in mills and quarries well into the second decade of the century, as of 1920, only 1 in 10 farmers had electricity. During recruitment for World War I and World War II, nearly half the Vermont youths called for service were rejected due to various physical and mental woes. By 1946, still one-third of Vermont youth did not attend school beyond eighth grade.
In the postwar period, Vermont began to slowly enter a period of prosperity, led by tourism and the fledgling ski industry, but the old worries persisted. “Something had to be done,” historian Garrison Nelson wrote, recounting the mood of 1960. “The state’s long-term economic survival could not withstand yet another generation of non-growth and the continuing exodus of its young people to other states with more attractive career opportunities.”
The ’60s brought the long-sought boom times, fueled by the building of the interstate, the arrival of white-collar businesses such as IBM and an influx of refugees from the rat race. Many of these new arrivals were young people — skiers, college grads who stayed on, searching-for-something types — and they gave the state an energetic-and-alternative feel, even as they themselves aged. Starting around 1970 and advancing to today, Vermont’s population increased from about 445,000 to about 626,000, an increase that would seem to speak for itself in terms of Vermont’s appeal as a place to live. Now, in 2013, Vermont is a uniquely “branded” place, known for both its enduring values — pastoral, beautiful, historic — and for its modern, quirky blend of alt-vibe capitalism (Ben and Jerry’s, Burton) and an overall progressive mindset, symbolized by a raft of social and environmental legislation. Such a place is highly attractive, at least to those who “get it,” but still, fear pervades the land that there is a drip-drip loss of the next generation. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of 21- to 44-year-olds in Vermont fell by some 23,000 from a total of about 207,000, prompting one candidate for state senate to warn: “Unless we can figure out how to keep young people in Vermont, we face a fiscal disaster in the next 20 years.”
Whenever “young people leaving the state” is trotted out into the public square, it’s often used as a stalking horse, as leverage to get the speaker to the real matter they want addressed: that taxes have to be changed (lowered, usually), that business regulations have to be altered, that housing has to be improved, whatever the issue might be. So it’s not that Vermont isn’t losing young people, as such; it’s that the youth-flight narrative, with its aversion to nuance and context, overlooks the flow of people who return in mid career.
If one wants to consider only statistics, Vermont ranks high nationally for its percentage of people in their 30s and 40s who are well-educated and ranks first in the nation for the overall health of its people. Vermont also lands on top for national rankings for such measures as public school education, public safety, local food and entrepreneurship. So while the state is undeniably lean in entry-level opportunities for 20-somethings, many who go out to start careers elsewhere eventually settle here, as do other established midcareer professionals who come to start families or just take part in the general quality of life.
In conducting interviews for this article, we spoke to many young Vermonters who fit the pattern of Nick Matush. Now 29, Matush left Vermont in 2003, traveling and working in South America, the Caribbean and the western United States, then returned to Springfield, his hometown. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Matush has since launched his own food business and also started a community service group working on local improvements, such as extending the area bike path.“Everybody’s trying to find themselves and find somewhere better than Vermont. I realized I belong back in Vermont. I should try to help my community back home,” he says. Jim Sabataso, 30, a native of Rutland who works as editor of the Rutland Reader, came to a similar realization. After studying out of state and finishing at the University of Vermont, he worked for a time at his family’s downtown restaurant, considered leaving Vermont again for graduate school, but meanwhile joined community groups like Sustainable Rutland and the Downtown Rutland Partnership.“I thought, if I’m going to be here, I’m not going to complain, I’m going to get involved. Rutland is still a work in progress. We have a self-esteem issue. I’m working to change that dynamic, remind people of what we have here. I wanted to facilitate a better culture for young professionals.”
With the focus on community service, we see some of the intangibles that make Vermont appealing to a different sort of mindset than just “what’s the salary, what are the taxes, how much is a house?” Young Vermonters are certainly keen to make a good living (“It’s a mistake for anyone to think that there aren’t real businesses here making real money,” says Sean Hurley, director of advertising and social products for Dealer.com), but there is more to it than that.
“We came home for the people, the culture of Vermont, the environment and the good character,” says Emily Lake Lee, 33, who returned to South Hero following a sojourn that began with college in North Carolina. After marriage and starting a family in the Raleigh area, she returned to the Champlain Islands and found work as a public school teacher. Emily’s sister, Mary, 29, says she “wanted to see the rest of the world” but ultimately discovered she had a passion for agriculture and now works as a sheep shearer and meat cutter in central Vermont. “I’m not having a financially super-successful life, but I love what I do, and the rewards of staying have been priceless,” she says. (A third sister, Sue, 36, lives in San Diego, where she works as a lawyer and her husband has a job specific to southern California. Sue says raising her 3-year-old daughter far from the rural beauty of Vermont causes “real pangs,” and she ruefully observes: “In Vermont,you don’t have to pay to go to a farm and see animals.”)
For those not raised in Vermont, but who encounter it for the first time as a visitor, the state can have a love-at-first-sight quality, imparting a sense that though you have never been here before, you are home. Bobby Farlice-Rubio was raised in Miami and was 18 when he accompanied a college friend to the Northeast Kingdom. Now 34, living in Barnet with his Vermont-born wife and their three children, Farlice-Rubio says he did not know how he would support himself but decided on that first visit, “I’m going to live here no matter what that means.” (He now works as a science educator at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium.) Nate Wildfire, 31, moved last year to Vermont from Pittsburgh after his fiancée landed a job with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. He found that his career expertise in urban redevelopment was in low demand, but he searched for several months and finally landed a job as the assistant director in Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office. “Maybe I would have had better success finding a job quickly in Des Moines,” he says, “ but nobody wants to live there.”
Universally, the young people we spoke to said they prize Vermont’s intimate scale and interconnectedness, its natural beauty and easy access to the outdoors, its down-to-earth priorities and its indefinable vibe. Vermont is certainly not for everyone nor is it “easy.” But what place is? Vermont has a bright future, much brighter than it would have been were it still isolated. Vermont is also admired. People want to live here, and with the Web and telecommuting, more and more of them can. In the words of 20-year-old Tyler McNaney of Milton, a student at Vermont Technical College who also runs a startup enterprise in the 3-D printer field: “The world’s become so connected. If I have the Internet and a road for FedEx to get to me, I don’t see why I’ll ever need to leave.”