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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

Alumni Reflect on Post-Grad Life in Vermont

MIDDLEBURY — Standing between the exposed brick walls and raw wooden beams of his office, Evan Deutsch ’12.5 began describing his path from graduation to where he now works, at a design agency he co-founded with fellow Middlebury alum Jon Portman ’13 four years ago. His story— turning down a consulting job in Boston to work for the College’s Center for Creativity, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship before starting his own company—typified the independent, purpose-driven spirit so entrenched in Vermont culture. And over 2,100 Middlebury alumni share this same spirit, living and working in the state today.

Vermont seems to have it all. The landscape is captivating, with snow-peaked mountains rising behind stretches of gentle, rolling hills. For the most part, the people are friendly, down to earth. The pace of life appears manageable, far from the rat-race of New York City or Los Angeles.

But more and more people are leaving, looking for opportunities in bigger cities in different states. Over the past several years, an average of only 35 students from each of Middlebury’s graduating classes have stayed.

For most, the choice is simple. Vermont has few opportunities and high costs of living. Large cities, while expensive, bring jobs that pay more and provide clearer possibilities for the future.

And because the decision to stay in Vermont can be difficult, it attracts a certain type of person— community minded, with a strong sense of purpose. More than 500 Middlebury graduates in Vermont surveyed by the CCI work in the education industry, from teachers in rural towns to administrators in more urban districts. Even business owners are mission-driven, running companies that contribute to the community in addition to increasing their profits. 

When Oxbow, Deutsch’s design agency, began to grow, he directed the company towards fulfilling an agenda of positive social impact. “Okay, we’re founding this business, it’s becoming successful,” he said. “How can we use this as a force for good, that amplifies our impact more than as individuals?”

Other alums say the same. “The amazing thing about doing business in Vermont is that social responsibility is part of the genetic code of the way businesses operate. That’s just not the case in other states,” said Benjy Adler ’03.5, founder and owner of The Skinny Pancake franchise.

Principles, like the commitment to local food, are not secondary to Adler’s business. Instead, he sees them as essential to making his restaurant successful. “The rest of the country looks to Vermont on how we are pushing the envelope,” he said. “To be here and to work on local food means that we are at the center of innovation.”

But for all the excitement surrounding Vermont and its culture of authenticity, there are still challenges. Business owners are often deterred by the perception of high taxes and high regulations.

“The community is amazing, but then when it comes down to filing your taxes, you feel like you’re getting screwed a little bit,” said Deutsch. “But it’s a trade-off. We can be in Delaware and not have the community that we have.”

Others struggle with high costs of living, and the lack of job mobility and opportunity. With few high-paying positions in Vermont, even people who may not have thought of becoming entrepreneurs find that Vermont forces them to be creative.

“Looking back on it, I’ve opted to create my own job more often than not. A lot of that is due to my personality, but there are also fewer job options,” said Chris Howell ’04, founder of a local food tour company. “It was tough making it work in the beginning— I held other jobs ranging from produce delivery driver to supporting developmentally disabled teens.”

Students, perceiving these difficulties, increasingly move away from Vermont, contributing to an outward migration of college graduates and exacerbating the trends of an aging population and stagnant workforce.

To make matters worse, many Vermonters now leave the state after high school. Despite the opportunity of going to schools like UVM, the Vermont State Colleges or Middlebury, over 45% of high school graduates leave the state— and many don’t return. While most states depend on their colleges and universities to increase the number of young workers they can attract and retain, Vermont has to invest in other measures.

“We have to try to encourage young people to become part of our community,” explains Jim Douglas ’72, the former governor of Vermont. Since his time in office, various agencies in the state government have regularly developed incentives to increase the workforce. The current administration, for example, will soon begin a program called “Stay to Stay”, setting up vacation weekends that include visits with businesses and realtors.

Colleges, including Middlebury, are also hoping to show students that there are opportunities in Vermont. “Too many students think that there’s no jobs. But there are,” said Peggy Burns, director of the CCI. “We want to facilitate a path for students to make informed decisions, and I think that Middlebury graduates can contribute to a more vibrant and robust culture here.”

At the end of the day, Vermont provides an opportunity unlike any other for those willing to stay.

As Adler explained, “The cold honest truth is, Vermont needs good people. That’s not a reason for anyone to choose to stay here, but the companies that are hiring are hungry. There’s a shortage, and I certainly appreciate it every time someone chooses to stay in Vermont.”