Energizer's wake up call

What can we learn, and how can we move forward, from Energizer's decision to close their Franklin County facility?

They have been clear that Vermont is on the unfortunate side of a restructuring - sales of batteries made at the plant are declining. They've chosen to close plants in two states and Malaysia, while consolidating manufacturing in Singapore, a country with low tax rates and a transparent regulatory framework.

It hurts. It hurts employees and their families, financially and emotionally. It will hurt other local businesses. And it hurts our ability to reduce poverty and combat drug abuse. And, it will take time to find new jobs to fill that building.

Naturally, we want to have as many homegrown businesses as possible. But the reality of the global marketplace is that companies like Energizer, or IBM, which have traditionally provided good manufacturing jobs, are headquartered elsewhere.

In fact, a significant segment of our private sector jobs are provided by companies that are headquartered some other place. Energizer and other companies doing business here face challenges like fierce competition, sluggish pricing, and a need to become more efficient. Economic growth in Asia is slowing; Europe is in recession, and America grows at half the rate necessary to reduce unemployment.

It has been reported that Energizer isn't leaving because of the business climate here. They politely declined relief on electricity costs (among the highest in the nation), or work force training (that has slipped far behind other state's programs), or economic incentives. And newspapers reported that the governor spoke with Energizer at least twice after their intentions became known. We want our governor to be active with our employers, so that's good. Still, this is an important wake-up call and an important opportunity to strengthen the job creation, and job retention, strategy of our state. We are not disconnected from the economy outside of Vermont and, while we continue to cultivate local business, the influence of the global economy will remain significant. Public policy here matters.

It isn't a question of whether we are unfriendly toward business or whether a departing employer would actually say that they are leaving for that reason. It is a question of whether we're adequately and innovatively applying the advantages Vermont does have and adapting to real changes in the economy that are impacting the lives of working Vermonters.

Our governor is focused on jobs - every governor is. We have an exceptional network of economic development efforts, including among the best in St. Albans. They know the local markets and employers in the market. But, no one systematically calls on our largest non-Vermont based employers. No one regularly visits their headquarters; no one builds relationships with key decisions makers about expansion and relocation. We should have a team of people focused on this relationship building activity; individuals who come to understand the company's needs, what drives their decision making, and how to help when they share their challenges. So it's too late to offer ideas - and to prevent job losses - when a company is thinking of leaving or has decided to leave.

Let's start by re-deploying some efforts at the state level. Instead of thinking about economic development as a package of economic incentives, let's develop an array of people who do nothing but call on our non-Vermont companies and give them tools to be nimble and responsive to employers. Let's develop relationships with employers; let's develop shared views of their challenges and their goals and how it relates to Vermonters. Let's send Vermonters out into the marketplace to sell Vermont as the welcoming place to create jobs that we know it can be.

The governor did the right thing: He called the company and asked them to re-consider. Let's do another right thing; let's put the right tools in our job creation toolbox. We've been caught flat-footed too many times. Let's not let it happen again.

Bruce Lisman was raised in and graduated from the University of Vermont. He launched Campaign for Vermont; an advocacy organization that promotes economic opportunity to improve the quality of life for current and future generations of Vermont's.


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