The meeting gathered manufacturing businesses — large and small — from the Seacoast, along with representatives from the local community college and assorted city leaders.
It was one in a series of monthly get-togethers to share challenges and concerns, and maybe helpful advice.
When one owner stood up to talk about his small start-up, he noted that he needed a new piece of equipment to take his business to the next level. But there was a catch: He couldn’t afford it.
Long story short, the college and the business owner, over sandwiches and coffee, agreed that the purchase could be split 50/50 to the benefit of both. Employees would use the machine at the business, and the college’s students would train on it, as part of one of the college’s educational programs.
“By the end of the luncheon, that had happened,” Valerie Rochon, president and chief collaborator of the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth, says, recalling the story.
“How amazing is that? You want a workforce development success story, that’s one.”
Rochon savors those victories, large and small. Such is the economic climate in New Hampshire these days as it relates to workforce.
By all accounts, New Hampshire is experiencing a workforce challenge that is worsening and threatens a state economy that is otherwise healthy and features the nation’s lowest unemployment rate.
It’s the theme for The Sentinel’s annual Economic Outlook reporting this year.
How serious is the problem? Depends who you talk to. But words and phrases such as “crisis,” “now or never,” “we’re in a dogfight” and “it trumps all other issues” were thrown out by some of the many people The Sentinel spoke with who are on the front lines trying to tackle the problem, locally and across the state.
“Everything we do here is about workforce,” Rochon says. “We have a crisis; we need solutions.”
Keene’s new city manager, Elizabeth Dragon, said at some point over time — sooner than later — this region’s response to the challenge needs to be ingrained, and, at a minimum, a little part of what we’re working on each day.
Our reporting on the topic is a collaboration itself, between The Sentinel and its sister magazine The Business Journal of Greater Keene, Brattleboro and Peterborough, which appears in today’s edition. We examine workforce issues through several lenses. The Sentinel is also posting a survey for local business leaders to help better identify the challenges facing this region. (See story, right).
Several area workforce-themed stories, the product of months of reporting and writing, can be found in The Business Journal.
This story seeks to frame the issue; examine who can play a leadership role in helping to solve a profound and complex challenge, and how; and ways in which other communities are tackling the problem, possibly to model.
Here’s some of what we discovered:
Partnerships matter. Creating powerful connections matters. Finding smart, innovative ways to bend to meet existing and emerging local business needs matters.
The transition to a knowledge workforce continues unabated and can’t be ignored as solutions are considered. That said, hands-on education — known as extended learning opportunities — is generally viewed as underutilized; co-ops and career education work; and exposing students to nontraditional pathways needs to begin early in their schooling. For example: Students have co-oped at Tyler Electric in Brattleboro and continue to work for the company as journeyman electricians; co-ops at Pine Heights in Brattleboro and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital have led to students continuing their education within the medical field.
Business and industry was feeling the strain, and leaders are realizing they must train workers with basic job skills. Peter Hansel is president of Keene-based Filtrine Manufacturing, which makes water coolers and chillers, among other products. “I’ve asked a lot of (local) businesses: ‘How do you find workers?’ ” he says. “ ‘We can’t find them; we have to train them,’ they say. They look for raw talent, people who want to work, and they train them. We have the same feeling at Filtrine.”
Front-line community leadership can take different forms. Where it’s working most effectively, we found, it is based on deep collaboration and a refocusing of time and resources. In this region, there is not a clear sense of who, or what, has the reins, and there is a lack of data necessary to more clearly define the scope of the prob lem.
There are no magic bullets, no simple answers. But, in places, a sense of urgency is inspiring creative approaches to meet the challenge head-on. Walls of defenses are falling, group efforts are forming and proving fruitful, and assertive, difference-making innovation is happening.
Marc Sedam heads up innovation and new ventures for the University of New Hampshire. His job is broad, but, in large measure, workforce trends and issues dominate much of his thinking.
He knows where and how the state lags relative to the issue; he knows who is thriving and who isn’t, and in many cases why.
Either way, he says it’s put-the-pedal-to-the-metal time.
“New Hampshire has so much potential, so many natural benefits,” he says. “If we want to do economic and job development, it can’t be a random walk.
Workforce, by definition, is the labor pool; it includes those who are employed and, just as importantly, those who are unemployed. It is often measured in the context of a single company or industry, but it is also often viewed more broadly, by cities and states, as a principal economic metric.
In New Hampshire, and more specifically Cheshire County, the trends are worrisome, to say the least.
The state is aging and unable to replace its retiring workforce with young professionals, tech workers and skilled laborers at the same pace. Certain manufacturing, technology companies, trade and service businesses all report deficiencies in finding the talent they need to grow.
New Hampshire is losing more millennials than it is gaining; in fact, its 20- to 24-year-old population is projected to continue to contract. Also, more people are leaving the state than moving here.
Young professionals are easily drawn to better-paying job opportunities and cultural offerings of nearby and more-metropolitan areas, and that can feel impossible to compete with, Rochon said.
The high cost of education, and a state government whose commitment to funding higher education is nearly nonexistent, are compounding factors.
New Hampshire has a poor record of keeping and attracting college-educated workers. Poor, in fact, might be kind; New Hampshire is the No. 1 exporter of college-bound students among U.S. states, which illustrates the priority and need for effective retention strategies. Its public college graduates, too, are saddled with more debt than graduates from any other state.
“Finding ways to make in-state students make in-state universities their choice is one thing,” Sedam said, “getting them to stay is quite another.”
The issue of broadband is not insignificant, nor is transportation or affordable housing. Societal challenges are pieces of the workforce puzzle, too. They include a widening opioid and heroin crisis, prohibitively expensive daycare and inadequate paid family medical leave options.
Nationally, there are other jarring headwinds: no federal mandates to support equal pay among women and men; rapid growth in automation that, according to one estimate, says 25 million jobs will be replaced over the next decade; and employment is better than it’s been in more than a decade, which is a good thing principally, but can lead to stalled growth.
A dubious international immigration environment has the potential to be problematic, too, Rochon noted. For example, she said, threats to the J-1 Visa program, which offers cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States — summer work travel, interns, high school and university student exchanges among them — would hit the state, and the Seacoast specifically, hard.
Cheshire County’s population growth is below the state average; its 2015 population — 76,430 — was less than 2010, with no recognizable growth spurts, according to N.H. Employment Security data. The county’s population has ranked sixth among New Hampshire’s 10 counties for seven consecutive decades, and with a median age of 42, it is one of the oldest regions in the state.
Stunningly, Cheshire County’s poverty rate is 18 percent higher than the rest of the state.
The opioid epidemic is unrelenting and trenchant; it is knocking people out of the workforce in staggering numbers, never mind the social costs.
Productivity-wise, substance misuse reduces state and local revenue by $87.6 million annually, according to PolEcon’s New Futures Economic report. A Princeton researcher, Alan Krueger, estimates the rise in painkiller prescriptions between 1999 and 2015 correlates with a 20 percent decrease in men’s workforce participation and 25 percent in women’s.
Hiring barriers in Cheshire County are particularly acute, exacerbated by high housing costs; low wages; a lack of a transportation network; inferior and spotty broadband; labor force nonparticipation; and the lack of a comprehensive and connected feeder system for new workers from area schools, colleges and universities.
Property taxes in parts of the region are among the highest in the state, to boot.
The N.H. Center for Public Policy Studies noted, bluntly, that New Hampshire employers will essentially run out of people to hire if current trends are not reversed. State and regional economies have a history of resiliency, but the workforce challenge will test that quality uniquely, experts and industry leaders argue.
The future is now
The time of reckoning isn’t far off. And it requires action and attention from people in the area who can move the needle forward.
Tom Minkler, a former local business owner, agrees. The region’s moment of truth is here, he said. Dragon says resolving the workforce challenge needs a higher-priority status, and a successful response will “take a village.”
Phil Suter, president and CEO of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, says a strong, cohesive and sustained community response is needed if jobs of the future are to be filled and businesses are to grow amid a shroud of so many gray clouds.
“The issue is high on this region’s radar tactically, but not strategically,” Suter says. “Most employers will tell you they have 22 requisitions to fill by the end of the month, and that’s what’s taking up a lot of their focus and time — running their business.”
Whether those businesses have the capacity to be thinking five, 10 years out at the challenge from a systems level, he said, “I’m not sure.”
Filtrine’s George Hansel, also a city councilor, says a re-commitment to building meaningful and lasting community partnerships is imperative, and that leadership of the needed ilk will come down, experience has shown him, not to a broad collaborative, but to a “group of a few movers and shakers who can make things happen.”
“Talk doesn’t get us anywhere at this point,” says Minkler, who, with his wife, Heather, for years owned Clark-Mortenson Insurance. They sold the business in 2016 but remain equity partners in it. Clark-Mortenson is part of an industry heavily burdened by workforce challenges, including a national pool that is projected to diminish by 25 percent — or more than 400,000 workers — by the end of 2018, Minkler said. “We need a coalition of the willing,” he said, “We need a few good champions. We can’t keep chasing the rabbit down the hole; the problem is not going to get smaller.
“We need a couple of good people to step up and say that I’m passionate about this issue, and I’m going to lead with vigor.”
Filling jobs of the future amid an aging population and a lack of strategy and mechanisms to train and draw enough young workers is daunting, on any level.
Suter says the region is making progress on the broadband issue. “Having good broadband,” he says, “doesn’t put us ahead of the world, but not having it puts us behind. If we’re doing plus and minuses, we can’t have unnecessary checks in the minus column.” In a leader, “we need a steward, someone to do the convening, the coordinating and the communicating.”
Shifting of priorities
Regionally, for more than two decades, the Jack Dugan-led Monadnock Economic Development Corp. has been the driving force behind economic development and business recruitment in this part of the state.
MEDC is one of 10 regional development corporations in the state, but its focus has been real-estate development and financing, not jobs directly.
While this region hasn’t had a designated team of community leaders expressly for economic or job development, there was a time when collaboration occurred informally and often with great effect, says Jim Rousmaniere, former Sentinel editor and president, and these days a MEDC board member. It included mayors and bankers and city leaders. It was, he said, organic ... an extension of the everyday work those people did.
Dragon says collaboration, natural or planned, will need to be part of any substantive approach that involves people and businesses working toward shared desired outcomes.
“It’s something I’m hearing about already when I visit businesses,” she says. “We need to do a better job of advocating for ourselves. Businesses must be a partner in the process, and so, too, must the state; it has to have an active role in helping us.”
“The city has a role, the chamber has a role,” she adds. “I think the colleges and high schools and career centers in our region need to be at the table, too. It will take all of that to create real long-term solutions.”
In some respects, the area’s focus on the issue of workforce has fallen victim to transition. That is, new faces in critical leadership positions, including Dragon, who took office just a few months ago, new leaders at each of the region’s institutions of higher education — Keene State College, Antioch University New England and River Valley Community College in Keene, and Franklin Pierce University in Rindge — and some degree of turnover in the top position at the chamber of commerce: When Suter took the reins in 2013, then as interim chief executive, he was its third different leader in as many years.
While workforce development is generally regarded as a priority issue for the region, the scope of the problem is not well defined.
The Sentinel survey aims to help identify job needs and the available job pool. The results will be shared in full online later.
It’s easy to get lost in the metrics, to the extent that they are known, Suter says, at the expense of having a starting point. In this case, he argues, that is a unified philosophy that puts all stakeholders “on the same page.”
“You have to discover what the problem is you’re trying to solve,” Suter says. “I would ask, should we have a regional strategy? If the answer is yes, what does it look like?
“It is something you have to work on every day. We as a chamber have said, and have been talking with our board, which represents our membership, about what role we can logically play. We’re in a unique position to be a convener, but you need community consensus. I think there’s an appetite on the part of our board for this, but we’re a small nonprofit; we can’t make the investment on our own.”
UNH’s Sedam says leadership and how communities react to the workforce challenge can depend where one sits. His biggest criticism of the culture in this state is that too many individuals are entrusted to make important change, or not.
He says communities with colleges and universities must be plugged in and leveraged, fully. It makes, he says, Keene different than Berlin, Newport different than Plymouth, from a strategic standpoint. It’s an advantage for the taking, he stresses.
He feels strongly that the smart way forward is for communities to find what they are good at and double down on that — strategically.
“In areas of aging population, if you have no plans to make it different, I think you’re in trouble,” he says. “Communities that rely on things like natural resources, or its attractive qualities … that’s not an effective strategy, that’s serendipity. No company makes a decision about where they will come based solely on quality of life.”
And he says, emphatically, that anything less than access to “wonderful broadband” is a virtual death sentence. “Strong, almost over-capacity broadband,” he says. “That’s as important to a business as electricity these days.”
Achieving full and wonderful broadband is easier said than done, given legislative impediments that prevent New Hampshire cities and towns from helping to build out their own infrastructure.
But Sedam’s point should not be lost. “Sometimes,” he says, “a town government has to say, we’re going to pay for this, we have to raises taxes, this is it. Our future might depend on it. I’d love to see more towns desire to have more industry, and then make the necessary investment to get it, whatever that takes.”
Calling all leaders
As leadership goes, local companies need to have a stronger presence and a deeper level of engagement, Rousmaniere says. “We need champions. We need a community, and that includes the City Council, that understands the need for champions and for action.”
“Change isn’t going to happen,” Dragon says, “unless businesses are a partner. The city has a role, the chamber has a role, the colleges and the high schools and the career centers have a role. We need to find ways to connect, and we need to find successes to celebrate.”
Minkler says another piece of the puzzle is to seek out businesses that have found creative solutions, and tap into them.
“We’re fortunate; we feel we’re in a pretty good spot, that we’ve done the right things to keep our employees here, but then we see the trends. There’s a chance to learn from others’ approaches.”
Suter echoes the sentiment.
“Let’s look at companies that don’t have a workforce issue,” he said. “Why is that? It’s an interesting question. Badger always comes up. Why is it that they never advertise (outside) for a job opening, but get 100 or 200 responses? There are lessons to be learned.”
W.S. Badger Co. Inc. in Gilsum, which produces organic balms and personal care products, is often recognized and honored for its diverse, family-friendly workplace.
Dragon began her new job late last year. Her plate was full when she arrived, but she said workforce will be, for her, a top-of-mind issue.
She, often along with Mayor Kendall Lane, has visited state leaders, businesses and met with college and university leaders for talks centered on the topic.
She says workforce is the number-one thing businesses want to discuss, unsurprisingly. Recently, she, along with Suter and Melinda Treadwell, Keene State’s interim president, signed on to an application through the Rural Business Development Grants program around recruiting, retaining and training workforce.
“If successful,” she says, “the grant would be used to more clearly and comprehensively identify the current gaps and barriers so that we can come up with strategies.”
But, as Sedam noted, to still be in the talking stages of understanding the problem and how best to react, means those places are in a playing-from-behind predicament.
Schools need to rule
Education, as an entity, needs to be represented at any table of leaders, too, many concurred.
Ray Dunn, co-op coordinator for the Windham Regional Career Center in Brattleboro with 35 years in education in manufacturing, engineering, math and computer science, is among those who feel strongly about broadening pipelines that link schools and local business.
Businesses that are not reaching out to high school students “are missing a possible future employee, with training that the company gets to watch/interview for up to one school year — with no commitment,” Dunn says.
“These are local people,” he adds. “They know the area; therefore, they are most likely to remain in the area. Businesses can’t afford to wait until after a student has graduated. If they do, they run the risk of missing potential workers who have chosen a different career path, have left the area for employment, have stayed in a lower-level, less-skilled job, or have chosen to stay under-employed or unemployed.”
Filtrine’s George Hansel notes that a once-successful internship program between his company and Keene State flat-out stalled. “It was great for awhile,” he says. “(Students) were getting work experience; we were getting quality work. Unfortunately, it ended up relying on current interns to recruit the next generation of interns,” and that wasn’t sustainable.
Hansel went as far as to say that he thinks it should be written into the job description of all college professors that a primary role of their work is to help students be connected to the local business industry and to assist in their students’ placement, noting that, in a full-circle way, it’s their future, too.
Making youth apprenticeships and academic and career planning requisite in school are other actionable steps, he says.
Taking chances; breaking molds
It was a representative from Great Bay Community College in the Seacoast who came forward with the luncheon idea to partner with a local business to purchase a piece of equipment.
It was Great Bay, too, that moved a classroom into Sig Sauer’s corporate headquarters at Pease International Tradeport to expose and train potential future workers. The gun manufacturer supplies the U.S. Navy SEALs, Secret Service and Coast Guard. It manufactures close to 2,000 firearms per day there. And it was the same college that now trains students to be medical assistants at area hospitals, part of a 12-week, on-the-job program in which selected students are hired, compensated and receive medical benefits while still in class.
Randy Bolduc heads up Great Bay’s Business and Training Center. He says partnerships like this can move the needle.
“The biggest thing for us,” Bolduc says, “is we don’t want our students to graduate, and then go to the company and have the company have to ask, ‘is this person the right employee for us?’
“We want to work with industry; we want the companies to tell us these are skills we need. Collaboration drives innovation. For us to continue to grow, we need partners within industry; they need to collaborate with us so we can learn how to train people for the job needs they have.”
Regional competition for workforce is not insignificant; it includes the state of Massachusetts investing $1 billion in life science initiatives, Connecticut investing $1.8 billion in STEM initiatives over eight years, the University of Maine matching in-state flagship tuition, and UMass Lowell offering in-state tuition to students living within 50 miles of its campus.
That reality can only be countered, Bolduc, says, with creative responses, sensible private-public partnerships, and a sense of urgency.
“It’s a big change in how things used to be done,” he said. “Companies used to fly people out to the West Coast for training; now, they’re finding they can get that training right in their backyard, in this case with the community college. We’re bringing companies and these colleges back together. I think it’s been fruitful for both.”
Sara Colson heads up Workforce Accelerator 2025, a state program that works to partner businesses with educators. She said the state community college system is “doing great things,” noting that they, perhaps more than larger colleges and universities, as institutions are able “to turn on a dime” more effectively.
“We’re talking real-time options,” she said, “like boot camps, condensing sessions and on-the-job training. Everyone is trying hard to work with businesses right now, and the awareness in higher education that there’s a different kind of need is greater than it’s ever been.”
Dunn asks: Why not get ahead of the curve in simple ways?
He strongly believes that positive change locally can happen in schools by exposing students as early as elementary school to potential careers and by enrolling middle school students in career exploration classes.
A 2015 report found that, for the first time following decades of growth, the proportion of new high school graduates who go on to a four-year college was showing decline.
“Local businesses have a tremendous pool of immediate potential employees already living in their employment area,” Dunn said.
Colson noted an innovative program in Meredith, in which a community business group came together to hire a person to embed in the local high school’s guidance department to improve a pipeline for more local work-based opportunities for its students.
It’s not a new program; it’s been in place at Inter-Lakes High School for several years, she said, but it clearly works and it’s a fresh, goal-specific approach. The school donates the space and the business group pays for the position so budget cuts are not a threat to the program.
There is effective workforce-related collaboration occurring locally and across the state: internship programs, mentorships, co-ops, specialized certification programs, and grant-funded training, which a local company, DD Bean & Sons of Jaffrey, will benefit from as part of $400,000 from the BEA Job Training Fund, announced just recently. Ten of its workers will receive job-specific training at a community college; in all, 800 workers will benefit from the private-public funds.
But attention to and collaboration on workforce challenges can’t be a part-time, on-again-off-again pursuit, UNH’s Sedam, noted.
Sense of community and independent spirit are qualities that any regional strategy ought to seize on, several said.
“Looking for the glow, for the positive light here,” Rousmaniere adds, “you can look to the (Keene) library project, the historical society, the church project, MoCo (a new arts center under construction in the city’s downtown) as being illustrative of how people can work together to make significant change happen.”
“It seems, to me, that the college’s science and technology center has lost some steam,” Rousmaniere says, at least as an entity that can be leveraged to strengthen regional workforce opportunities. “That connection, that’s the tool you’re seeing over there in Portsmouth.”
Says Minkler: “Any strategic plan needs to include broadband, the arts, and finding a way to attract millennials. We need an audacious goal, sort of like when the hospital launched its 2020 campaign to be the healthiest community.
“There are a lot of smart people in this town,” he added. “It can get tackled.”
Suter agrees, but said the chances of it happening for free are not realistic.
“We all get it (the problem), I think,” Suter says, “so it becomes, how do we aggregate that effort in a way that provides some economies of scale, some focus. And, how do we make whatever model we come up with sustainable?”
He says, in a perfect world, enough money — local and federal, in the form of grants, foundation funds and donations, perhaps — to develop a full-time position for a workforce leader, or two, over a three- to five-year period, could be found. “We need data,” he says, “and we need a marketing component; any effort has to be uniquely branded.”
The good news, Colson says, is that she sees unprecedented levels of collaboration across the state.
“Breaking down barriers, opening lines of communication, groups leveraging their resources and efforts — I see it in my work, and I’d be shocked to hear that it was any different in communities.
“We’ve all arrived at a point where the issue is real; it’s not in the future. It’s on all our radars. Collaboration that in the past wouldn’t have happened is a no-brainer now. I see very little ego involved in any of this effort.”
Sedam offers this advice to communities: “Find your culture, your vibe; or, decide what you’re going to be good at, then market the crap out of it. The strategy needs to be: What can we build on that’s unique to us, and then be able to deliver. Just saying that would make you unique.”