Vermont Technical College Closing the Skills Gap

Words // Lettie Stratton
Photos // Ben DeFlorio & Andy Duback

Vermont is no Silicon Valley, but it’s not just full of pitchfork-wielding, low-tech, back-to-the-landers, either. The Green Mountain State has been on the rise as an emerging technology hub for several years now, and Vermont Technical College is committed to keeping pace with that change. With campuses in Randolph and Williston, low tuition rates, and numerous degrees in agriculture, computer sciences, engineering, business, and more, the state college is giving students the skills they need to contribute to an increasingly tech-dependent landscape.

With a post-graduation job placement rate of 96 percent, the college is clearly doing something right. “There are good jobs in the state of Vermont,” says President Dan Smith. “Our graduates are getting three or four job offers from Vermont entities in fields like applied science, energy, and agriculture.”

Andy-Duback-Agri-NEW-3-copyHistorically, Vermont is an agricultural state, and even today it tops lists of states with a commitment to sustainable agriculture and local food. But there is a skills gap. Older generations of farmers are aging and there simply aren’t enough interested and able young people to take over. For Vermont, a state with such deep ties to this vital business sector, that gap could be devastating. That’s why schools like Vermont Tech that offer degrees in agriculture are so important. The college even has a designated Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems.

Vermont Tech’s academic programs excel in other areas, too. Their computer science and software engineering programs are among the best in the state, and here’s the kicker — tuition is affordable.

“I really do think that as people look at the expense of college, a school like Vermont Tech is going to be really appealing to a lot of farm kids and Vermont families,” Smith said. “We’ve dramatically expanded our financial aid going into our next financial year, and our Board of Trustees is very committed to keeping tuition fees low.” Smith explained that a large portion of Vermont Tech’s student population comes from Vermont. By educating Vermont students and aligning them with in-state jobs after graduation, the college is supplying a great boost to the state’s workforce. “From a state perspective, the work this college does is important economically,” Smith adds.

It’s important for plenty of other reasons, too. Vermont Technical College is not only recruiting and training the next generation of skilled workers, but also giving graduates incentive to stay in Vermont and apply their skills in the local environment. “One of the things that drives the appeal of young adults wanting to be in Vermont is the value of the working landscape,” Smith said. “We are training and educating the professionals who will run Vermont’s working landscape by working farms.”

Andy-Duback-4-YES-copyOne way the college is bridging the skills gap in the agriculture industry is through its new partnership with Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC). “There’s interest in gap year experiences,” Smith explained. “Lot of kids may be interested in agriculture or conservation, but may not be ready to commit to a four-year program.” This will be the first year of the program and partnership between Vermont Tech and VYCC. Students will gain experience in dairy farming, vegetable production, forestry, plant science, and more. They will leave with a solid foundation that can be applied to future experiences in a number of ways, whether it be higher education or starting a job in one of Vermont’s deeply rooted industries. “We wanted to develop a certificate program using experiential learning,” Smith continued. “It’s a real opportunity to develop agricultural experience.”

There’s an age-old stereotype that farmers are no good with technology – just look at the first line of this article. But that may be changing. “In the dairy and agriculture industries, you’ll see people with iPads out in tractors tracking plants and cropping,” Smith said. “Farmers can use GPS modeling on their iPad so they know where they’ve applied what.”

Scenarios such as this are why Vermont Tech is working to create opportunities for students to conduct interdisciplinary projects. These projects, which are still in the works, will involve four or five students from different majors converging to work toward a common goal, like the application of technology and software to farm management, for example. By teaching students how to merge applied sciences with Vermont’s already established industries, like dairy and agriculture, the college helps promote further economic growth.

Students at Vermont Tech work hard, but they know how to have fun, too. “We just bought a ski and snowboard press for a mechanical engineering project,” Smith said. He also recounted a recent rail jam the college hosted at its Randolph campus, for which students welded all the rails and jumps.

And it’s not just full-time students who can get in on the fun. Smith said students who already hold bachelors or other degrees often come to Vermont Tech looking for a skill. “Short courses through the Institute of Applied Agriculture are easy for nontraditional students to access,” he said. You can sign up for a class in a subject like cheese making, distilled spirits, or craft beer. “We support that emerging hub,” Smith says of the latter. “Our role is to close the skills gap. Our students are awesome and the faculty are doing a great job. I’m really optimistic. I think we’re doing the right stuff.”