NEK officials look to lawmakers to address workforce crisis

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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt (WCAX) Leaders in the Northeast Kingdom are mobilizing at the Statehouse next week to pass laws to make it easier for people to live and work in the state's most economically stressed region.

The Northeast Kingdom has the highest unemployment rate in the state and the state's demographic challenges are magnified in the rural region. Community leaders say that if lawmakers want to tackle the problem at its root, they need to start with the region's aging workforce.

Shawn Tester is the CEO at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. He's concerned about the age of his staff. "Clinical professionals, doctors nurse practicioners, PAs, and we really struggle to fill those positions," he said.

Tester says 35 percent of the hospitals nurses are baby boomers while only 24 percent are millenials. As more and more Vermonters age says it's harder to find new doctors. He says the legislature could work on a tax credit for student loan debt, giving recent graduates a break and providing the ability to move to the kingdom.

"We'd certainly love to see it go beyond just medical school students, but to include anyone who went into the health care profession," Tester said.

Kingdom leaders also want investment in marketing and tourism and a targeted approach to draw in service men and women. By promoting the Northeast Kingdom to military bases, leaders are hoping the younger demographic with a range of skills will move to the region.

"When you look at the military, you have people that have a lot of education and training and education in all kinds of areas. It could be health care, mechanics -- it could be education," said Mike Welch with Northern Community Investment Corporation.

NEK leaders say this action at the Statehouse can help their area and other rural regions.

But the demands of one region in the state can be pitted against other regions with similar problems. "We've got some economically vibrant healthy areas and we have some really struggling areas. We can't have policies that look to how one sector is doing and assume it's going to work, because it's not," said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield.

The kingdom is also still smarting from the EB-5 fraud scandal. The big hole in the heart of Newport is a continual reminder of a half-billlion dollars in unmet promises. And that's something lawmakers probably can't fix.