Our Opinion: Nursing deal shows the way; will Montpelier follow?

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When Southwestern Vermont Health Care in Bennington reached an agreement with Southern Vermont College to offer jobs and tuition reimbursement to graduates who completed SVC's nursing program and met requirements, it made all the sense in the world for both institutions.

So it's a cause for relief, and some celebration, that Castleton University and SVHC have reached an agreement to continue the program at Castleton this fall in the wake of SVC's coming closure, and taken steps to make the program more accessible to Bennington-area students.

SVHC and Castleton announced Tuesday that the university has submitted a substantive change request to the New England Commission of Higher Education to establish an additional location in Bennington to deliver its Bachelor of Science in Nursing program beginning this fall. Castleton plans to share space with Vermont Technical College.

It's going to make a positive difference for the region, and Castelton and SVHC are to be commended for having the foresight and the commitment to make this program work, without missing a single semester.

Here we have a public university and a non-profit healthcare provider, one of the largest employers in Southern Vermont, understanding the enormity of what's at stake and figuring out a way to provide everyone what they need.

SVHC will get the nurses it needs to maintain essential health services, and for a six-year commitment. Castleton gets to grow a core academic program in a profession where there is strong demand for qualified graduates. Southern Vermont gets investment in workforce training and an additional higher education resource to help ease the blow of SVC's closure.

Area students willing to put in the work get the promise of employment and tuition reimbursement. The state gets its share of payroll, income and sales taxes from employees earning competitive salaries. And our towns get college-educated professionals who will be very likely to settle here and contribute to building stronger communities. Everyone wins.

One would think the Legislature and the Scott administration would see this and say "A-ha! Just what we needed! Let's do more of that."

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It's not that the state is incapable of finding the will and the cash to support business growth. Its quasi-public development agency gave the company formerly known as Keurig Green Mountain millions of dollars to grow and expand (while insisting upon secrecy when it came to accounting for that money or how it was used).

But when it comes to workforce development, Montpelier is long on talk and short on action.

Sure, there's a few initiatives here and there, such as the program offering $5,000 to telecommuters who relocate to Vermont. But propose even a modest incentive for the film and TV production industry and training for its employees, or an additional $25 million over five years to make the state college system more affordable to young Vermonters who will otherwise flee the state, and you'll hear the echo of your own voice bouncing off the Statehouse walls.

That's foolish.

Vermont is at a demographic crossroads. Its population is graying and shrinking, and the lack of trained, educated employees who can pass a routine drug screen is choking the growth of our economy. When the Legislature and the Scott Administration find themselves at odds, it's most often because they disagree over how to pay for the things Vermont wants and needs to do — expand opiate addiction treatment, clean up Lake Champlain, lower the cost of quality early childhood education, and a host of others.

We understand the support for raising the minimum wage — something the Legislature has been spending a lot of time deliberating. Vermont has a great many service economy jobs, and those roles and the folks who fill them are important to the state tourism economy.

But at $15 an hour, dollars simply do not multiply through the economy or find their way to Montpelier the way they do at higher salaries. The sort earned by registered nurses, machinists, electricians, plumbers, engineers, teachers, and other trained blue- and white-collar professionals. And minimum wage jobs do not begin to pay for the high cost of living here. Vermont needs trained employees to grow, too; and those employees need higher salaries so they can live here and pay off college loans.

Helping to expand state college offerings in Southern Vermont also corrects an historical slight to this part of the state. And it could expand enrollment through recruitment from Western Massachusetts and greater Albany, N.Y.

The partnership between Castleton and SVHC shows the way forward. Making college and/or professional training accessible to students, and laying out a path from the classroom to the workplace, holds the promise of real benefit for Vermont. What's more, such partnerships can hit the ground running without waiting for Montpelier.


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