Vermont’s Tipping Point?

Malcolm Gladwell took the concept of “The Tipping Point” out of the realm of epidemiologists and made it a must know phrase with his book by the same title.  Mr. Gladwell sought to describe the underlying factors that can make large impacts on social phenomenon; comparing fashion trends to disease epidemics in their often sudden rate of impact and ubiquitous presence.  The tipping point that Mr. Gladwell is fascinated by is not a new concept, but the depth of analysis presented in back-of-the-napkin format made his bestseller its own cultural epidemic.

In Vermont, employers have been trying to describe our current challenges as their own kind of tipping point.  The challenge is that you’re never quite sure where or when the tipping point will come into play.  For the state, we can see challenges looming: the bankrupting of our unemployment fund clearly shows a broken link in our social support system and our state deficit is currently on the frontlines as a target of concern, but whether or not (or when) one of these or the other will actually lead to a rapid decline in our socioeconomic sustainability is not known.  Within the business community, this discussion can be heard through the quiet comment of “death by a thousand cuts.”  It’s often a challenge to pinpoint that single thing that could cause a company to close its doors, either permanently or to complete a move to another state with perceived higher return on investment, however, we know that for every individual employer that limit exists.

It is often argued that small changes and tweaks to our tax rates, regulatory system, and other associated business costs have not made a dramatic impact on the number of high-wealth individuals in the state or on the overall composition of our economy.  And while this might have some historical validity, it fails to consider any sort of limit on when a slow trickle turns into a broken dam.  Yet these are things that are repeated as challenges on par with healthcare reform, economic competitiveness and power supply quality and rates.  The important thing to remember is that for each of these factors, there is an equal opportunity to effect positive change.  The movement towards a cultural epidemic should ignite a sense of opportunity as much as one of concern.

Part of the challenge is finding those factors, the “agents of change,” that can catalyze rapid restructuring.  The goal is to find and support those factors that can rapidly add value to a system that is otherwise in equilibrium.  We often think of these actions as revitalization of existing resources or in the creation of new assets with broad value.  An example might be the factors behind the expansion and renovation of the Dealer.com technology campus on Pine St.  The 300 person expansion is being heralded as a focal point of a growing technology community in the South End of Burlington that includes other Vermont employers such as Google analytics experts EpikOne.

Critical in the decision making process for that single employer was the value, both real and perceived, of the state’s three premier economic programs: the Vermont Employer Growth Incentive, low finance rate money from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, and the Vermont Training Program.  Dealer.com met their positive tipping point and decided to grow employment in our state 100%.  What we need is to promote a cultural shift that sees strength in retention of employers and increased growth in the addition of new companies, both from Vermont entrepreneurs and from out of state employers looking to be a part of our economy.  Governor-Elect Shumlin has been open about the fact that he has asked every one of his appointees what they will do to create jobs under their purview.  The question is the right one to ask; what we need is the support, vision and strength of implementation to ensure that we tip the scales towards growth of our value-adding employers – without strong action, we stand to tip in the other direction.