Economic Outlook

A growing workforce crisis is compounded

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.”

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Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Mike Baulin, a coil roller at Filtrine Manufacturing in Keene, uses a pipe cutter to remove the excess length of pipe on an evaporation coil. Filtrine makes water coolers and chillers, among other products. It, like many businesses, is using different strategies to help attract and retain workers.

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.

Challenges, complexities

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.

“Not now.”

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.

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Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce President Phil Suter says the region offers “a really great product” that can be improved in the face of the jobs crisis.

“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.”

Back to the top

Area retention programs focus on what people want: family-friendly policies

A person doesn’t walk into work and become a different person. That worker is still a wife, a father, a sister, a son — a human being.

This may seem obvious, but for years some businesses seemed bent on taking the human part out of their human resources. But there is a societal shift taking place where more businesses are realizing the benefits of family-friendly workplace policies that recognize and accommodate the lives employees live outside of work. This is not only because it’s arguably the right thing to do, but because it helps them remain competitive in attracting and retaining high-quality employees.

The Monadnock Region seems to be on the leading edge of this phenomenon with more businesses taking the time to revamp their policies to include benefits such as flex time, telecommuting, paid family leave, living wages and babies at work programs, among other things, to help employees strike that work/life balance.

THE ROI OF FAMILY-FRIENDLY

“I think lots of organizations are approaching family friendly as it has become more apparent that there’s a return on investment for them,” says Emily Hall-Warren, director of administration for W.S. Badger Co. Inc., of Gilsum, which has had family-friendly policies for years.

“It’s been a part of our DNA for a long time because we feel like it’s ethically and morally the right thing to do,” says Hall-Warren.

Creating a workplace that people want to come to every day, is not just a nice thing to do. It has tangible benefits to companies that employ family-friendly practices.

According to a 2011 report on the WorldatWork survey of managers from more than 500 different business organizations nationwide, workplace flexibility has a positive effect on engagement, motivation and satisfaction. The report showed that 72 percent of respondents believe their workforce would say there is a positive or extremely positive effect of flexibility programs on employee engagement, 71 percent say it affects employee motivation and 82 percent say it has a positive effect on employee satisfaction.

All of those factors contribute to being able to retain employees. And that’s important considering how much it costs just to replace one employee.

According to the Center for American Progress, for a person making $50,000 to $75,000, the average cost of replacing that employee is 20 percent of salary — or about $10,000 and $15,000 — and 16 percent for those making $30,000 or less — or about $4,800. Those costs include factors such as the loss of productivity, the cost of replacing the person as well as low productivity at the outset of the new person starting and training.

More complex and higher paying jobs costs companies even more.

“Very highly paid jobs and those at the senior or executive levels tend to have disproportionately high turnover costs as a percentage of salary (up to 213 percent),” according to a report from the Center for American Progress.

This can be significant since annually roughly one-fifth of workers quit their jobs and an additional one-sixth are fired, according to the Center.

More than that, offering family-friendly policies can save some money. For example, allowing one employee to telecommute just one day per week can save a company $6,500, according to a study by When Work Works, a project of the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management.

Moreover, flexible work schedules can help attract talent. Of those who offer flexible work schedules, 61 percent say they use their flexibility programs at least occasionally, with 35 percent saying they always use it as a tool to attract talent, according to the WorldatWork survey.

And with unemployment hovering around 2 percent in New Hampshire, family-friendly benefits such as these can become invaluable for attracting workers. Executive Director for Keene Housing, Joshua Meehan, says their family-friendly policies not only help Keene Housing remain competitive for candidates but also helps build loyalty with current employees, which helps with retention.

“It’s just really valuable for us,” he says. “So from a day to day business perspective, we think it’s important to be attractive and be competitive in a very small market. And especially for our senior positions, we would like to be attractive to people who don’t live in this region, so that people will come work for us.”

FAMILY-FRIENDLY AMBASSADORS

With the aim of growing the number of companies in the region that offer family-friendly programs and the types of programs offered, Impact Monadnock — which is part of the Monadnock United Way —created its Business Ambassadors program.

The Ambassadors are a coalition of local companies that have committed to implementing family-friendly policies in the workplace. So far, this group has grown to about 20 area businesses, whose leaders, in turn, have agreed to coach other business leaders on how to start their own family-friendly programs, says Jill Morgan, program director for Impact Monadnock.

The group meets every quarter to network and share ideas for different initiatives their organizations can consider utilizing in an effort to improve the lives of workers and the children who depend on them. At the last meeting, Morgan says, about 45 people turned out, the majority of whom were from new companies looking into becoming ambassadors.

“It’s important that we are creating more workplaces that allow people to be better parents to their children,” says Morgan. “And it’s important to not only to increase the number of businesses implementing family-friendly policies but increasing the numbers of family-friendly policies being implemented.”

Among those first adopters of these initiatives and an ambassador, is W.S. Badger Co. Inc., which makes organic and all-natural body and skin care products.

“We’ve always been sort of a mission-driven business,” says Badger’s Director of Administration Emily Hall-Warren, “and family-friendly has been part of our social value system from the beginning. And our owners, Bill (Whyte) and Katie (Schwerin) … have always identified that we wanted to have a business place that is supportive of children and supportive of our employees directly and of their personal lives.”

BABIES AT WORK

In addition to flex time, Badger also offers a babies at work program that allows parents to bring their newborns to work. Hall-Warren adds the company regards this as an opportunity, but not necessarily a guarantee.

“For example, if a parent has a really colicky baby, that might not be a situation that would really work,” she says. “But up until now we’ve been able to accommodate every baby that’s been brought to work.”

During this period, the parent may have alternate work duties or may have their own duties but may end up working in a different space that allows them to take care of the baby. Because they realize the parent may spend a good deal of their day caring for the child, their pay is less for the hours they work during this time.

“But the outcomes are just lovely,” she says.

“People I think really enjoy it. You know, as a new parent, you know you’ve left the work, you’ve had a new baby, you’re life has been like thrown into turmoil, you’re not sleeping. You’re trying to figure out how to manage having a new person who is dependent on you and you come back to work and it’s like no one knows that happened,” she says. “But if you can bring your baby to work, there’s this whole community of people who can be like, ‘oh I remember when that happened to me and this is what I did when our baby didn’t sleep.’ And you have this whole village around you, living your experience with you.”

She adds that this sort of policy also helps with the idea of the gender gap in the workplace. Because one of the times women leave the workplace — and sometimes don’t come back or do come back but are behind the curve in their careers — is during their childbearing years. But programs like this, she says, get them back into the workplace sooner and with the supports they need.

“Moms are going to come back,” she says, “and you’ve trained them and put energy and resources into them, you want to keep these employees. So it’s all a great.”

Additionally, Badger has paid leave for primary and secondary care parents, which is an additional five weeks of paid leave primary care parents and two weeks of paid leave for secondary care parents, upon the birth, adoption or fostering of a child; extended parental leave, which allows new parents to take a leave of up to six months with job protection after the birth of a child; child care reimbursements for the cost of child care during the 11 weeks a year kids have off from school; and the Badger Calendula Garden Child Care Center, which is its own full-day, partially subsidized child care center offering reasonably-priced, flexible child care for children of Badger employees, as well as a limited number of children from the greater community.

FLEX TIME AND LIVING WAGES

Another business employing family-friendly policies is Keene Housing, which provides and advocates for affordable housing and supportive services for low and moderate-income households in the Monadnock Region.

At Keene Housing, Meehan says, they also offer flex time and their own babies at work program, which is based largely on Badger’s model. At Keene Housing a child can come into work with a parent until he or she is crawling as long as the parent has someone available to come pick up the child if the baby becomes sick or colicky. They also have coverage at the office where other employees sign up to help care for the baby if the parent needs to be away from the office or in a meeting, for example.

Meehan says they have also implemented a living wage policy. Based on local economists’ calculations, Meehan says that an employee needs to earn about $15 per hour to afford basic needs like housing, transportation, food, clothing and such.

“What that means for us is that no one comes to work for us starts at less than $15 per hour,” he says. “That was … our baseline for how we become a local engine or an example of how an employer can adopt some family-friendly policies that can help attract, can help retain, high-quality employees without having … negative impact on our bottom line. Because when you attract high-quality employees that makes your business better.”

Meehan says deciding to do this was a relatively easy lift since most of their employees were making more than that. Further, turnover at Keene Housing is rare, he says, so building that rate of pay is manageable.

MENTAL HEALTH AND HOLIDAY SHOPPING DAYS

Meehan adds they also offer employees things like a generous “health days” policy which allows employees to take time off not only when they are sick, but when they just need a mental health day to stay well. Another feature they offer is a shopping day during the holiday season, where employees can take a day to do their holiday shopping.

“It’s really important for our single parents or even two working parents,” says Meehan. “Sometimes it’s really hard to find some time to go to the store and get Christmas presents for the kids.”

Keene Housing also recently implemented a paid parental leave policy where if an employee has a baby or adopts a baby, the parent gets four weeks of paid leave. They also offer days offer volunteering, started an employee garden and accommodate breastfeeding.

Meehan says these policies are crucial to being able to attract high-quality employees, particularly for the more technical jobs where candidates may be scarce.

While there is some significant evidence that family-friendly policies are good not only for employees and their families, but also for businesses, some companies still have concerns about getting them started.

HOW TO START A FAMILY-FRIENDLY POLICY

“I think that most of the reservations are around, ‘we don’t know how to do that. It sounds good theoretically, but how does that work on a practical level?’” says Morgan. “So the business ambassadors just went through a training on how to coach other businesses to implement family-friendly policies. So part of the outreach efforts now is that people who received the training are going to work one on one with businesses interested in talking through ways that they can implement more policies.”

Hall-Warren is a coach with the Ambassadors program and says many of the businesses she works with are concerned about the cost and complexity of implementing family-friendly policies.

And, she adds, “there’s often just not a culture of even thinking about it. Many organizations don’t even have a value of hearing about people’s personal lives at all.”

So when she talks to businesses, at the start she asks them what they are already doing, what is a need they’ve identified in their work community, what does the population of their workforce look like and what could make a big difference for them.

“So based on your employee base, you may have an older employee base and they may be struggling with caring for their aging parents or you may have a very young employee base in which case they may be struggling with parenting,” she says by way of examples.

Hall-Warren says one of the first things she suggests companies implement is flexible scheduling, which she says, is essentially free.

“And it makes a world of difference,” she says. “If you had to be somewhere nine-to-five every day how would you make that soccer game or that play or that doctor’s appointment? That stress of trying to fit things into the workday or around the workday is horrible for parents.

“And that’s something that you can just say, okay let people come in a little early that morning that the person has to go to the soccer game, there’s almost no cost to that.”

She then discusses limited cost policy option, such as providing a reimbursement for a week of childcare during school vacations.

“So even if you have a childcare situation or your kids are at school, there are still 11 weeks of the year or more that aren’t provided for,” says Hall-Warren. “And it’s a very manageable cost for businesses. You can budget easily for it. That’s another creative example that makes a huge difference for families but also isn’t sort of an exorbitant amount of money.”

In the end, she says, implementing family-friendly policies comes down to the fact that it makes for a better workplace, happier employees, more retention and ultimately a better outcome for both the employee and the employer.

“Our employees, they are human, obviously, with as complex a life story as any of us have,” she says. “We all walk into work with thoughts of what happened this morning and what going on at home and all our worries and to ignore that, it sort of dehumanizes the individual experience. So we want to support our employees and create a healthy community and recognize every individual as an individual and that they are thinking adults with full lives.

“It’s about treating employees the way you would want to be treated.”

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The Kingsbury conundrum

In the middle of the last century, Kingsbury Corp.’s sprawling manufacturing plant anchored a bustling industrial hub along Marlboro Street in Keene. At one point, the machine-tool manufacturer provided more than 1,000 jobs, which today would make it the city’s third-largest private employer.

In a 2011 article, former employees remembered a place where workers earned a middle-class living, took pride in their jobs and stayed on for decades. Many lived nearby, in residential neighborhoods along Marlboro Street, Ward 2 City Councilor Mitchell H. Greenwald says in a recent interview.

“I remember when it was a functional machine plant,” says Greenwald. “It was amazing in the 70s. And then just watching it go down, down and then out. And now the current nightmare of a vacant property.”

Kingsbury Corp. filed for bankruptcy in September 2011, in the wake of the financial crisis. Brian J. Thibeault, a Manchester-based developer, bought the property at auction in 2013, but it has remained empty.

In recent years, city officials have sought to revive the Marlboro Street corridor as a vibrant combination of walkable mixed-use clusters, next-gen tech companies and enduring single-family neighborhoods.

But the old Kingsbury property sticks out — literally. Wings of the 300,000-square-foot facility at 80 Laurel St. jut into a residential neighborhood to the west, loom in the background of Marlboro Street and rear into view from Water Street and the Rail Trail. In all, the property covers more than 20 acres.

Redeveloping the massive parcel could pump jobs and dollars into the local economy, helping to lift the area, city officials and others familiar with the property say.

But Thibeault has done little with the property since its purchase. Talk of the city buying it has quieted. And a series of hurdles — from suspected environmental contamination to flooding issues to hefty back taxes — could hamstring development.

“There would have to be a very complicated package put together for that site if it were to be redeveloped in the future,” Elizabeth A. Dragon, Keene’s city manager, said in December.

INDUSTRIOUS PAST, CHALLENGING FUTURE

Founded in the late 19th century, the Kingsbury Toy Company made cast-iron cars, fire trucks and other toys until switching to machine-tool manufacturing during World War II.

As the company morphed and grew, so too did its space. On maps, the building is an angular, 40-sided blob. Kingsbury built its manufacturing facility in various stages between 1894 and 1982, according to city assessing records. It contains about 230,000 square feet of manufacturing space, 50,000 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of warehouse.

“It should be noted that this plant is one building that is made up of approximately 20 to 25 separate buildings that have been connected over time,” a city tax-abatement analysis observed in 2005. “It is not like a modern facility that has even column spacing and uniform wall and roof heights.”

The facility varies in height from 12 feet to 26 feet, with load-bearing walls in odd places, according to the analysis. A separate document, from 2002, described the plant’s “severe functional obsolescence,” including split-level floors connected by ramps.

“This makes the plant harder to maintain and less easily adaptable to changes in use,” the 2005 analysis said.

Splayed across Beaver Brook, the plant is also prone to flooding. Severe storms that swept through the region in October 2005 filled the Kingsbury building with three feet of standing water for more than a day. The water and resultant humidity destroyed floors and walls, blew electrical systems and damaged ceiling tiles, according to city assessing records.

Meanwhile, owing to the century-plus of industrial use, contaminants may well have seeped into the soil or groundwater. An environmental consulting firm assessed the property in 2012 for TD Bank, then the owner. The results indicated that “use of the property by Kingsbury Corp. has adversely impacted groundwater quality at the Site,” according to the report, which is accessible through the N.H. Department of Environmental Services website.

Back taxes further complicate matters. As of December 11, 2017, the city was owed $836,188 in unpaid taxes and interest on the property. About $611,000 of that stems from 2008 and 2009, as Kingsbury was headed into bankruptcy. Thibeault took responsibility for the tax debt in 2013 when he bought the property at auction for $50,000. Another $225,000 was due from 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Asked about the unpaid taxes under his ownership in a mid-December interview, Thibeault said he would have to look into the matter.

RIGHT FOR REDEVELOPMENT?

Thibeault says he bought 80 Laurel St. because of its “great potential.” He’s not alone in seeing the parcel’s promise.

“It’s large,” says Daniel V. Scully, a Keene architect who has been involved in efforts to reimagine the city’s east side. “It’s close to downtown, which is very significant. It has a lot of parking. It jumps a lot of those hurdles right in the beginning.”

Those features could suit a number of uses, he notes.

“There’s been talk about offices,” Scully says. “There’s been talk about a college campus.” He envisions stores, maybe a restaurant — “things that bring life to a community.”

Roy D. Wallen, a Brookline-based business-development consultant, scouted the property in preparation for an interview with a reporter. “As I drove up, I thought, ‘This could be a great mix of retail, light manufacturing and parkland,’” he says.

Much of the existing building will likely need to come down, most people interviewed for this story say. A few pieces could be repurposed, though.

Thibeault believes he can salvage a two-story brick structure that housed Kingsbury’s corporate offices. The office structure, last renovated in the 1990s, is one of two parts of the building identified for possible reuse by a 2015 community forum on redeveloping the area.

Michael B. Bergeron, a senior business development manager with the N.H. Division of Economic Development, compares the Kingsbury site to a former paper mill property in Groveton.

The mill closed in 2007, leaving a vast, vacant industrial space that languished for the better part of a decade, according to a March 2017 InDepthNH.org story.

Only a fraction of the plant was reusable — about 100,000 square feet of a structure six times that size, Bergeron says. The current owner, Bob Chapman, fixed the place up and converted it to an industrial park. His first tenant, NSA Industries LLC of Vermont, moved in January 2017, according to InDepthNH.org.

But success was no sure thing. Chapman told InDepthNH.org that it was a “gamble” he sunk about $15 million into.

After Thibeault bought the Kingsbury building in May 2013, he told The Sentinel that he hoped to renovate the structure, then rent it out as office and industrial space. He said he planned to begin work as soon as the sale closed.

Thibeault did pay for some environmental cleanup work, then-City Manager John A. MacLean said in October 2013. But little else has happened at the site. The last building permit for 80 Laurel St. referenced in city records dates to 2007.

In a mid-December interview, Thibeault attributed the lack of activity to his focus on properties elsewhere and a sluggish economy after the purchase. But he said things should pick up soon.

“I think you’re gonna see something in the next 12 to 24 months,” Thibeault said. He declined to explain further, saying only that he has “irons in the fire” and expects “a major change in the property” before long.

At the same time, his plan for the property hasn’t coalesced. Thibeault says he wants to cooperate with the city to meet local needs.

“We would like to see what the city would like to see there,” he said. “We don’t want to build more housing if they don’t need it.”

Ideas for the property have included everything from a technology park to a mixed commercial-residential development to an indoor-sports facility, he says.

“We’re talking with people every day about different spaces and different ideas,” he says.

He is also open to selling the property or developing it to a future tenant’s specifications, he says.

CITY MULLS ITS ROLE

Others are less sanguine about the property’s near-term prospects.

“It could be any number of things, but the current owner has not come forward with a development plan,” Greenwald, the city councilor, says.

In part, that’s because some moving pieces need to fall into place before development proceeds.

First up is an environmental assessment expected to start in early 2018. The old Kingsbury site is considered a brownfield — a parcel that has or is thought to have contamination of some kind based on its past use.

J.B. Mack, the principal planner for the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, says the perception of contamination — even if none exists — can scare off potential buyers or investors.

The planning commission, in consultation with the city, applied for and received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess possible contamination at the site.

The grant lasts for three years. Mack says the assessment likely won’t conclude before the end of 2018 and could take longer.

Depending on the results of the study, state officials could require the property owner to monitor or clean up contaminants, he says.

Another issue concerns Beaver Brook, which flows along the parcel’s western edge. A part of the Kingsbury building crosses the river, which city officials have said constricts the water’s flow and exacerbates flooding. At a 2014 meeting of the City Council’s finance, organization and personnel committee, Martin Risley, a consultant looking at flood mitigation options, recommended demolishing the building along with three small bridges on the same property.

“That artery needs to be opened up,” Scully, the architect, said recently. The city may have to partner with the owner, he added, to “make the property more usable to everybody.”

A planned extension of Victoria Street — slated for 2022 in the current Capital Improvement Program — could also shape future development. It would establish a new link between Water and Marlboro streets, likely running along the eastern edge of 80 Laurel St.

“All that begins to generate more activity there, and more connectivity to the rest of the city,” Scully said.

In a December interview, Dragon said she needs more information about the property’s environmental state before the city weighs its options.

“Until we have that report, the Kingsbury site needs to sit on the table and wait,” she said, referring to the planning commission assessment.

“What I worry about for the city is that taking on a project of that size without a plan … would be risky, because it could be costly,” she said.

Several years ago, city officials mulled taking ownership of some of the Kingsbury property. In November 2013, the City Council authorized MacLean to explore buying part or all of it. Discussions of a possible purchase continued into the next year but never came to fruition. At the time, some city officials, including Greenwald, expressed reluctance over the unknown costs of cleanup.

Citing the same concern, Dragon dismisses the possibility of the city taking over the property, at least for now.

If the city deeded the property for back taxes, she says, it could be responsible for monitoring or containing contaminants from seeping into abutting properties. If the city bought the property outright, it could have additional environmental liability.

Greenwald plans to push for renewed City Council discussion in 2018 on the question of “do we want to take it or not.”

If not, says Greenwald, who chairs the council’s finance, organization and personnel committee, city officials need to figure out a strategy to get the property developed. That could include promoting new job-creation and building-rehabilitation tax incentives to “help the owner market the thing,” he said.

“I’m gonna make it a goal for this coming year, one way or another, something’s gonna happen on that property,” he says.

But At-Large City Councilor George S. Hansel says city staff and elected officials can do only so much.

The city’s role in such cases should be to create conditions that allow and encourage development, he says.

Hansel, who sits on the council’s planning, licenses and development committee, pointed to recent initiatives focused on the Marlboro St. area, which includes the Kingsbury property. The council created three new zoning districts and approved two tax incentives, one of which offers temporary tax relief to developers who substantially rehabilitate certain properties.

“I hope that the property owner and some people in the economic-development world in Keene are looking at that property as a great opportunity and marketing it,” he says. “But it’s really up to them.”

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Higher education: Only one piece of the workforce shortage problem

Over a period of three months, Teleflex Medical in Jaffrey raised its minimum base pay by $1.50, from $11 to $12.50 an hour.

Like other manufacturers in the area, the company is struggling to find skilled machine operators and technicians. Part of the recruitment strategy is to draw new employees in with incentives like higher wages, tuition reimbursement and part-time weekend shifts.

“We just — we need to get people in the door,” says Jenn Robichaud, human resources manager at the local branch of the medical technology manufacturer.

At Cheshire Medical Center, recruiters are facing a similar problem — a shortage of qualified nurses and healthcare professionals that is affecting care providers across the nation, says Lisa Sandstrum, the hospital’s employment manager.

“There’s not one of us that doesn’t have a job vacancy or multiple vacancies at any given time,” she notes.

The region’s workforce development challenges aren’t limited to these industries — far from it — but they do have something in common: the educational institutions that are trying to tackle them.

With four colleges and universities in the Monadnock Region, River Valley Community College doesn’t always capture the spotlight, often eclipsed by larger institutions like Keene State College and Antioch University New England. Even its location in Keene is unassuming, a re-purposed elementary school building that can be easy to miss driving north on Washington Street.

River Valley Community College is touted as an affordable option for traditional and nontraditional students alike. The college’s mission is to provide “a quality and affordable education through innovative personal approaches to lifelong learning and career pathways,” with programs to produce graduates for industries in need.

And industries are in need. In 2017, the City of Keene released an economic development action plan that identified production technology and machinery, textile manufacturing and plastics manufacturing as top-ranked industries in the Keene area that are struggling with insufficient talent pools. Statewide, an average of 490 openings for registered nurses are projected to emerge annually through 2024, according to Projections Central.

River Valley Community College hopes to help address the shortfall. But like most potential solutions to our workforce problem, the college’s role in bolstering the region’s workforce has its limits.

ADDRESSING THE NEED

At Teleflex, a new partnership with the college is helping to fill the company’s gap in skills, says Robichaud.

A new registered apprenticeship program, facilitated by River Valley, kicked off at Teleflex in October. Funded by an apprenticeship grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the program is training 15 incumbent employees in basic math, operational skills, industry safety standards and other necessary skills for working with advanced machinery.

Robichaud says the company’s biggest challenge in the Monadnock Region is recruiting skilled employees. But the organization felt it wouldn’t be right to use the grant to educate new employees when there are current employees who need training, too.

“I think if we offered the program to new people coming in from outside the organization, it would undoubtedly help us with our recruitment numbers,” she says, “but that’s just not the right thing to do. What we’re hoping is that people will hear about the program, recognize our investment in the employees with this and come on board with us anticipating that if they demonstrate interest and engagement with the work that they’re doing, that they’ll have the opportunity to participate in the program down the road.”

River Valley — which also has a main campus in Claremont and an academic center in Lebanon — has partnered directly with companies in the region on workforce development efforts before. Within the last 18 months, the college has run in-house training programs at New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Peterborough and Millipore Corporation in Jaffrey, according to Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire.

Outside of company partnerships, the college also offers an advanced machine tool technology certificate program to train potential new employees for manufacturing jobs. But no courses in the certificate program are being offered at the Keene center this year, according to Linda Richelson, the center’s director.

That’s because funding for the program, provided by an H1B Technical Skill Training Grant, ended, notes Dan Osborn, coordinator of workforce development for River Valley in Keene.

Depleted grant funding can sometimes put programs on hold until a new funding source is secured, as in the case of the manufacturing program in Keene, says Shannon Reid, a spokeswoman for the Community College System of New Hampshire. About 4 to 5 percent of the system’s operational budget comes from grant funding, she said.

In the case of partnerships, when a grant runs out, companies can choose to continue paying for programs through their own tuition reimbursement funds, or to re-apply for a new grant to continue covering the cost, says Osborn.

“It’s going to fall upon somebody to pay the training costs, but the thought being that there are usually funding sources to help defray the cost and there’s also tuition reimbursement, which companies set aside at the beginning of their year,” says Osborn.

He says he’s hopeful that a cohort of advanced machine tool technology students will return to the Keene center in the future, but that it may not be grant-based if it does. The Keene center is working on creating interest for the program in the area, says Richelson.

As for Teleflex, the company hopes to continue its apprenticeship program and potentially introduce a second cohort to run concurrently with the first, Robichaud says. In the future, the company may even expand the program to technician-level employees, she says — but because it’s a pilot program, how exactly it will evolve with time is unclear.

“It’s really uncharted territory,” says Robichaud. “So, we’re trying to navigate carefully so that we can execute and deliver well.”

TACKLING A SHORTAGE

While the college is partnering directly with companies to address manufacturing needs, zeroing in on the health care shortfall requires a different approach.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an average of 203,600 new job openings for registered nurses (RNs) to emerge nationwide each year between 2016 and 2026, according to its most recent projection report. In mid-December, Keene’s Cheshire Medical Center alone had 19 open positions for registered nurses listed on its website.

Many of the hospital’s current nursing staff are River Valley graduates, notes Sandstrum. But to fill open positions, Cheshire draws from colleges and universities throughout New England, from the University of New Hampshire to Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts.

River Valley’s Keene campus admits a new nursing cohort of 16 students every other year, according to Richelson, the center’s director. Ideally, the college would like to start a new cohort in Keene annually, she says, but the college is limited by space, and it’s been a challenge to find qualified teaching faculty, who must hold a master’s degree in nursing.

“That’s a resource issue in our country,” she says.

According to Pat Shinn, the former chairwoman of River Valley’s nursing department, a cohort of 16 is on the small side. But at River Valley, it proved to be the right size, she says.

“While I was there, between 2014 to 2017, I found that that was all that there were applications for. We didn’t have qualified applicants for more than the 16,” says Shinn. “We weren’t turning anyone away.”

Once students complete the two-year associate nursing program at River Valley, they can transfer to a four-year college to complete a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, or take the licensing exam to become an RN directly after receiving an associate’s.

Cheshire Medical Center prefers to hire RNs with a bachelor’s degree, according to Sandstrum, but the hospital does offer internal support to help nurses with an associate’s degree pursue their bachelor’s over time. But with an aging population of nurses who will soon retire and a widespread need for nurses in health care, it’s difficult to make a dent in the issue, she says.

“The nursing need that River Valley helps to fill, I don’t think that they could fill it all on their own because the average age of a nurse is something like 47 to 52 years old,” says Sandstrum. “I don’t know that an organization of River Valley’s size or a college of River Valley’s size could ever independently fill that gap.”

Plus, the region is not just in need of RNs. Licensed nursing assistants (LNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) are also in high demand, especially in elder care facilities and home health care programs.

River Valley doesn’t offer LNA training, but the Keene center does house the local Red Cross’ LNA training program, which is a prerequisite for students pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing there.

Previously, River Valley also offered LPN training, but that program was closed in 2014 as the school restructured its nursing curriculum during efforts to regain accreditation. The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing suspended the college’s national accreditation in August 2013, due to low scores on the state licensing exam over a five-year period. River Valley failed to prove that faculty develop and regularly review curriculum and failed to show that instruction meets best practice standards, according to a previous report in The Sentinel.

After a complete overhaul of the nursing program and curriculum, the college was re-approved for accreditation in July 2016, and exam scores are back up, according to Richelson. But the city’s other major producer of nursing graduates, Keene State College, is now dealing with its own accreditation challenges.

Like River Valley, Keene State lost its accreditation due to low pass rates on the state licensing exam. And with uncertainty about the future of the program, some students changed majors or transferred out — leaving the program with 16 students in the current junior and senior classes, according to Shinn, who now chairs the nursing program there.

The program is on the right track to regain accreditation, she says. And with the capacity to sustain a cohort of 32 students each year, the region could potentially see a total of 48 nursing graduates some years between the two colleges once Keene State’s nursing department is back in full working order, Shinn noted.

Accreditation issues aside, in general, it has been hard to attract students to nursing degrees for a myriad of reasons — such as changes to health care models and the insurance industry — notes Sandstrum, which makes the job harder for educational institutions.

“I think it’s really a big onion to pull back and start to look at a lot of layers,” says Sandstrum. “Programs like River Valley really are contributing, but the issue is so significant and so big in so many ways.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Amid efforts to bolster workforce development programs, the college has also faced enrollment and budgetary hurdles.

It’s one of seven colleges that comprise the Community College System of New Hampshire. Among those seven schools, River Valley has the second-lowest enrollment, with 1,764 students enrolled in its three locations — Claremont, Keene and Lebanon — last academic year, according to CCSNH spokeswoman Shannon Reid. Within the system, it surpasses only Berlin-based White Mountains Community College — at an enrollment of 1,673 — which also has campuses in Littleton and North Conway.

In Keene, River Valley served 383 students during the 2016/2017 academic year, while the main Claremont campus served 1,569 students and the new Lebanon campus, which opened in 2016, served 202, according to Reid. Some students take courses at more than one location, she notes, which is why enrollment numbers from the three campuses surpass the college’s total enrollment.

Just between Cheshire and Sullivan counties, where River Valley’s two largest campuses are located, the college serves a population of approximately 118,000, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Carroll County and Coos County, White Mountain Community College campuses serve a population of about 79,000, the estimates show.

Each of the two colleges also has a location in Grafton County, which has an estimated population of less than 89,000.

For both River Valley and White Mountains Community College, lower enrollment is a product of demographics, says Gittell. In 2013, he published a working paper on the existence of “two New Hampshires” — areas of the state linked to the Boston metropolitan hub and those that are not — and the need for a different approach to community college education in rural areas.

“It’s a priority but it’s also sometimes a challenge because of the resources there because sometimes the current education skill level of the population is below what an industry is desiring,” says Gittell. “So, we have a chicken and egg with attracting industry and developing that skilled workforce, and we’re trying to maintain a skilled workforce to maintain and grow industry.”

Though River Valley’s enrollment is second-to-last in the community college system, it receives the third highest portion of state-allocated funding among the seven colleges, according to Reid.

While the college accounts for 8 percent of the system’s total enrollment, it receives 12 percent of its state-allocated funding. That’s because colleges in rural areas don’t have access to the same “economic efficiencies” as larger community colleges, says Gittell. In other words, since community colleges are largely tuition-based, rural campuses with lower enrollment need more state funding to cover costs.

And when the economy is on the upswing, enrollment — and tuition revenue — tend to go down because fewer people need of job re-training, he said.

“Now, as you know, the unemployment rate in the state and in Keene is very low, so there’s fewer people who need training right now to place a job, but then the industries are asking for workers with greater skills. That’s where the gap comes in,” he says. “How it affects us is since we get a relatively low percentage of our funding from state support, we’re heavily tuition-dependent, which means when our enrollment goes down when the economy improves, it affects our financial position.”

The college laid off six employees and reduced the hours of five others in May of 2017, in addition to eliminating associate degree programs in English and creative writing. Across its three campuses, enrollment dropped more than 5 percent between 2014 and 2016, Reid says.

There have also been several leadership shifts over recent years. After serving as president for three years, Alicia B. Harvey-Smith left the college in August of 2016 to take a position as the executive vice chancellor of Lone Star College, based in Houston, Texas. An interim president was not named to fill the position until January, when Ali Rafieymehr, vice president of academic affairs at the time, stepped into the role.

Despite recent struggles, the college has support from the state’s community college system, Gittell notes.

“River Valley, yes, has faced some challenges. But we’re committed, the board’s committed to sustaining and investing in River Valley so it is successful. So, you go through different cycles and different stages, and River Valley recently has been through a difficult period,” says Gittell, “but it’s going to have a strong future and there’s a commitment from the system to sustain the institution and make sure it serves that region of the state.”

Employers and educators agree that training — and training from institutions like River Valley — is a crucial piece of the workforce development puzzle. But it’s just that — one piece of the puzzle. And it’s certainly not a catch-all solution.

“I wish it was just one thing. Then we would do it right away. I think that we’re on the right track by creating workforce development programs, partnering with other organizations, having scholarships,” says Sandstrum.

“But this is a national issue.”

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What is Higher Education Doing to Solve the Workforce Shortage?

For all the attempts to match Keene State College graduates with quality jobs in the local workforce, one challenge stands out: wanderlust. Many students entering the job market want to sample something else, live somewhere else, after four years on campus.

That doesn’t mean lucrative jobs aren’t available in the Monadnock Region, or that local companies aren’t wooing Keene State graduates. They are. Incentives such as competitive wages, specialized programs that match employers’ needs and paid internships that lead to full-time employment are particularly attractive. But so is living in a large city, or in the mountains, or by the seashore.

“I thought about staying, but I think it’s important for people my age to kind of get out, at least for a while,” says Natalie “Nat” Riddel, 24, who graduated from Keene State in 2015 with a degree in health science.

College graduates like Riddel are finding a sizzling job market that allows them to be picky about where they would like to go. The National Association of College and Employers estimated that businesses hired 5 percent more graduates from the class of 2016 than the year before in a pool of about 1.9 million. The unemployment rate for college graduates 25 and older is 2.4 percent, less than half the national average, the association reported. It’s even lower in the high tech and health-care fields.

With most graduates yet to start their own families, it’s tempting and easy to fulfill an adventurous spirit, especially when quality jobs are readily available.

“I hear that a lot,” says Karen Balnis, service learning and internship coordinator in Keene State’s Academic and Career Advising Office. “They’re young, it’s time to go — wanderlust is probably the right term.”

Riddel, who is from Milford, accepted a job in Keene State’s advising office following graduation but stayed only for the summer. She moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, and worked in a group home in Natick, Massachusetts, before the pull of the Rocky Mountains lured her West. In September, she moved to Broomfield, Colorado, with 2016 Keene State graduate Siobhan Fuller, and is a teacher-counselor for people with developmental disabilities.

“I decided I needed a change and wanted to try something different beyond Keene and New Hampshire,” says Riddel. “I know a lot of (graduates) feel that way.”

Thus, a sizable slice of the workforce pie potentially coming from Keene State may be unattainable as soon as the mortarboards hit the ground. But area businesses are trying to keep them here. Convincing graduates to stay and work in the Monadnock Region — particularly in the high-tech sectors of manufacturing or health care — is ongoing and evolving, says Phil Suter, president and CEO of the Keene Chamber of Commerce.

He acknowledges the challenges are real, starting with demographics. Southwest New Hampshire has one of the oldest populations in the state, not exactly a hub for a young singles population. Meanwhile, the baby boomer generation is sweeping into retirement, leaving an already parched local workforce seeking an infusion of young talent. And he repeats an oft-cited lament that the Monadnock Region trails many regional centers in both its physical highway infrastructure and internet broadband capacity.

“Those are some serious headwinds,” notes Suter.

Flipped around, those same demographics work in favor of Keene State graduates who want to stay.

“I think if a student wants to find a job around here, they will,” says Daniel Henderson, Keene State’s Director of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives.

Henderson is a liaison between graduates and employers. Although his job is to help facilitate matches regardless of the company’s location, he has helped forge partnerships with many businesses in the Monadnock Region including some of its largest such as C&S Wholesale Grocers and Markem-Imaje.

“We reach out to area businesses, get to know them and where their needs are, and bring our faculty and staff. That way, we can understand them better and they can get to know our faculty,” says Henderson.

Manufacturing is considered a lynchpin in the health of a local economy, and at least 20 high-tech companies are involved in partnerships with Keene State. One of the most successful is the Manufacturing Partners Scholarship Program that began three years ago and is sponsored by Markem-Imaji, Whelen Engineering of Charlestown and Hitchiner Manufacturing of Milford. The program provides financial support to students and connects them to businesses for mentoring and paid internships.

As an example, Henderson points to Julia Proctor of Marlborough, a Keene High graduate and sustainable product design and innovation major. Last summer she was awarded an optical engineering research and development internship at Corning Specialty Materials in Keene through the partnership scholarship program.

“This is the chance for the business to get a good, long look at some students,” he says. “And if the students as interns have a good experience, they may want to come back for more.”

Hitchiner has also been eager to partner with Keene State students for long-term development, Henderson notes. It offers internships and has worked with the college on its curriculum to stay abreast of current trends.

“Hitchiner wants to be a preferred employment site for Keene State students,” says Henderson.

Last year the college formed a task force with C&S to enhance a part-time, paid internship program. C&S has about 100 openings in its Keene headquarters every year, Henderson says, and a handful of Keene State students join its ranks annually.

“Some (students) have been hired full-time, others got offers,” says Henderson.

Other high-tech companies in the region, or just outside it, that have developed partnerships with Keene State include Moore Nanotechnology of Swanzey, Ball Bearings of Peterborough, Engleberth Construction of Keene, Bensonwood of Walpole, Fenton Family Dealerships of Keene and Filtrine Manufacturing Co. of Keene.

Internships are invaluable in helping students discover if their majors are compatible with the jobs they desire; companies find it a potential pipeline to fill their needs.

“It works both ways,” says Balnis. “It’s a relationship builder.”

Henderson describes it as a three-month tryout, for both the student and the company.

Last year 400 Keene State students were granted internships, the summer included. Balnis says manufacturers particularly favor summer internships because students can work the equivalent of a full-time schedule, as opposed to the school year when they average 10 to 12 hours per week. And summer internships are often paid positions, whereas a majority still only offer college credits.

“Manufacturing partners want students full-time. They really want the student to have the full immersion,” says Balnis.

The college’s Future Fair, held every semester, is another way to connect students with area businesses. Companies set up booths in an open house forum, so students can browse through potential job opportunities and begin networking with representatives of those companies.

In 2014 the college created a career speaker series in which corporate representatives from the area — many in manufacturing — give presentations about their companies. It’s sponsored by academic departments associated with the companies. For example, this fall speakers from C&S, Markem, Hypertherm, Hitchiner, Red River Computer Co. of Claremont, Public Radio and Cheshire Medical Center all spoke on campus. About 40 to 60 students attended each presentation, Henderson says, and were encouraged to bring their resumes.

RCAM: TRYING TO FIND ITS NICHE

One of the most ambitious consortiums of local high-tech manufacturers and education was born in 2010, but today its status is in limbo. The Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) came together to promote advanced manufacturing skills between Keene State, River Valley Community College, the Keene School District and the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce.

With more than 70 advanced manufacturers in the area, the center’s mission was to train and supply the high-tech workforce with qualified candidates. It formed shortly before the time Keene State’s Technology, Design and Safety Center opened, so basing it in that building seemed like a natural fit. Suter was its second executive director but gave up the post when he became president of the Chamber of Commerce in 2014. William B. Gurney, the former co-superintendent of School Administrative Unit 29, took over as interim director.

Today, Suter is back in charge of RCAM, and it has since left the TDS Center. Suter says it has lost some momentum from its earlier years and is now trying to redefine itself. One reason, he said, is because RCAM became conflated with the TDS Center.

“That’s not RCAM. RCAM is not a place, it’s an initiative,” notes Suter.

Meetings in the last few months have been held at the Chamber of Commerce, but its entire mission is being reassessed. It’s taking input from a variety of sources, including Keene State President Melinda Treadwell. According to Suter, questions it needs to answer include: Is the Chamber of Commerce the right home, and how do you resource it? Should it encompass the entire workforce and not just manufacturing?

“We have to figure out ways to be attractive to the workforce,” says Suter, listing data collection and marketing as likely vital cogs in its future mission. “Even if we kept all the graduates, I don’t know if that would solve the problem.”

A MODEL FOR OTHER SHORTAGES

RCAM’s original model hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two years ago the Monadnock Health Care Workforce Group formed, its mission in health care parallel with RCAM’s intentions to foster manufacturing job candidates. Membership includes most of the area’s long-term care, home health care and assisted living facilities, as well as Cheshire Medical Center. It started with administrators of nursing homes and grew from there, says Chairwoman Cathy Gray, who is CEO for Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities in Keene.

A survey last year showed that there were 229 openings for nurses and therapists in the Monadnock Region, Gray says, more if travel nurses are included in those numbers. Thus, the workforce group works to attract potential health-care providers from Keene State, River Valley and Vermont Technical College, all the way down to area middle schools.

“People are moving from one facility to another, but how can we increase the pool of nurses and nursing assistants?” Gray asks rhetorically. “We’re exposing nursing students to our specific settings.”

For example, Gray says an out-of-state student who studied under a preceptor for a semester at Cedarcrest was hired full-time after she graduated from Keene State in May, adding to the region’s workforce.

A coalition also gives them a stronger political voice; state Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, has been a strong advocate in pushing through legislation to remove some red-tape barriers that were in the way of hiring candidates, says Gray.

“We have a shortage and we can’t have barriers that are delaying (hiring) … We’re trying to make it happen as soon as possible,” she says.

The group’s outreach goes beyond Keene State. It encourages area high school students to enter the nursing program at Keene State, and is working on getting a summer camp off the ground for middle school students interested in nursing.

CONTINUING ED A LINK TO THE WORKFORCE

Keeping incumbent workers in the Monadnock Region is one of the goals of Keene State’s Office of Continuing Education and Extended Studies. Its career and workforce development program works with employers to develop customized training programs. The specific courses can be for college credit or non-credit; most importantly, they are meant to be flexible.

“My role is to bring the resources that we have to serve the state,” says Robert Baker, who is Keene State’s director of continuing education and a member of the Southwest Regional Planning Commission’s economic development advisory committee.

That manifests itself in multiple ways, from cooperative sustainable design programs in the discussion phase in conjunction with Antioch University New England and Greenfield Community College to nurturing smaller niche programs, such as serving as the state’s training center for driver education instructors.

One of the catalysts of the sustainable design discussions was the closing of Vermont Yankee; the end-goal of the collaboration is to create new industry to keep some of those high skilled employees displaced by the nuclear plant’s closing in the local workforce.

“Given that we don’t have a lot of large industry, the kind of thing we can do is help support incumbent workers,” says Baker. “Supporting incumbent employees goes a long way toward retention.”

Unencumbered by the credit requirements of matriculating students, continuing education has the flexibility to develop industry-specific courses, from a full semester to an individual eight-hour online course. As an example of its “customized contract training,” Baker says it’s in the process of developing a statistics course specifically for employees or potential employees at Hitchiner.

And its driver education program is the only one in New Hampshire that prepares future instructors for the state exam.

Through continuing education, Keene State hosts the Southwest Center for Educational Support, a collaboration of educational leaders in area schools. Among its various functions, it sponsors daylong workshops and multi-day conferences with an eye ultimately on workforce needs. For instance, one program aims to keep future school principals in the area.

“These aspiring principals can really come to understand the issues in their districts,” he says of the training. “That really is a Monadnock Region initiative for us,” says Baker.

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Franklin Pierce University: bridging the gap between academia and the job market

There are plenty who think a disconnect exists between academia and the job market; that graduating students in large numbers don’t meet the criteria of today’s workplace.

It’s been described as an urgency, but one local institution, Franklin Pierce University, is tackling the dilemma as an opportunity.

After building the highly-regarded health sciences program in 2012, producing students in great demand, FPU has turned its sights on generating more and more graduates who can slide easily into other workforces.

COLLABORATION WITH BUSINESSES

Highlighting that strategy is the C&S Scholars programs, just getting off the ground, with the goal of embedding students in the Keene-based food giant through job shadowing and internships. This February, the first students will apply for the FPU-C&S program, and, if it works as the partners expect, it will be a validation of what can happen between agile educational institutions and businesses facing frustrating employee needs.

“There’s a shortage of talent (for area businesses),” says Mary Ann Gaal, associate professor of management in the business school at FPU. “How can we provide that talent for them?”

The C&S program, in which 10-15 students may enter each year, begins with job shadowing at the company in their sophomore term. As juniors, the participants will take a three-credit internship through the program, followed by nine-credit intensive internships when they are seniors. The senior commitment is essentially a co-op program in which the students work significant hours at the company in various disciplines.

“The hope is a number of them will be offered a full-time position,” says Gaal, and that “they will be lured to stay in the area.”

How many will be hired? Gaal hopes at least three to five each year, but the outcomes are three years away.

“It’s kind of our beginning,” she says of this in-depth approach to assisting local businesses. “In the long term, we’d like to take the program and duplicate it for other positions in the area.”

FPU and C&S have had an internship relationship for two years, and the company just hired two of the university’s May graduates, but “Scholars” represents a greater commitment.

PAID INTERNSHIPS

Gaal sees opportunities in the accounting field for this approach, also cybersecurity. Seizing market opportunities feeds the school’s renewed focus on its own sustainability.

“We can be more nimble,” she says of the 1,500-student university. “Many of us, we came from business backgrounds. We like to do more than we like to talk about (doing).”

Gaal was, for 13 years, the capital construction manager for the University System of New Hampshire, a career with a decided business bent. She knows the demands of industry and the need for skilled employees. It’s a conversation that occurs regularly among her peers.

“How do you keep students who are clamoring for Boston, keep them here,” she says.

Jobs, for one.

A requirement of the 400 students in the business school is that they take a paid internship with a company, so at any one time, there are 70 or so FPU business interns active.

Locally, FPU students have completed internships at New Hampshire Ball Bearing; Monadnock Community Hospital; Oster & Wheeler, Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Service; Summerhill Assisted Living, Anderson & Gilbert and others.

National statistics suggest high job placement rates among those who take part in paid internships. In 2012, 60 percent of paid interns got a job offer from their internship source, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Unpaid interns did not do as well with only 36 percent getting job offers. The higher success rate is one reason FPU requires students obtain paid programs.

Most colleges and universities have internship programs, strive to make connections with businesses and cater to the changing employment marketplace.

MEETING THE DEMAND

But often there can be internal struggles or resistance to adjust curriculum quickly to meet job needs. Chasing the “hot jobs” can be frustrating and disruptive. It requires a balance between sticking with an institution’s academic mission and the obligation to turn out employable graduates who can earn enough to pay off college debts.

Kim Mooney, Ph.D., president of FPU, sees the importance of the latter as it relates to FPU’s future.

A goal, she says, “is to graduate really good students who are in demand.”

An institution that regularly meets this objective is one that will thrive.

She, too, spoke of the health science program and the “creation of educational partnerships with hospitals and municipalities” as being a marked success.

Beyond traditional four-year programs, FPU is pursuing micro-credential opportunities, which are innovative approaches to burnish one’s experience and expertise — at a reasonable cost.

For example, someone in business looking for marketing training might take three to four courses through the FPU, packaged in an efficient and useful way. A “credential” in marketing would accompany the completion of these courses, providing an immediate benefit for the student and his or her employer — and in a short timeframe.

FPU is generous in providing credit to incoming or adult students for academic, life and work experience, Mooney says. The university is mindful of meeting the prospective student with terms that provide the best chance for success in today’s dynamic job market.

“If you’re a college or university, there is a responsibility to be paying attention,” Mooney says.

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