Companies report a small pool of job applicants as the region maintains its low unemployment rate. In the meantime, programs at colleges and universities are exploring ways to bolster the workforce.

New Hampshire’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for October tied for the fourth lowest in the country at 2.6%, nearly a point lower than the national average. In October 2018, that figure was 2.4%, according to New Hampshire Employment Security’s data.

Cheshire County’s unemployment rate for October was slightly lower than the State’s at 2.4%, says Annette Nielsen, an economist with the New Hampshire Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau in Concord. Once those rates drop below 3%, she notes, they indicate labor shortages.

The Granite State’s jobless rate has been under that threshold since December 2015, according to NHES data. Before this stint, the last time that figure was below 3% was March 2001.

Nielsen pointed to a growing labor force in other parts of the state, which likely contributed to the 0.2 % bump over last year’s unemployment rate. That’s probably not true in Cheshire County, she notes, with its stagnant and at times

declining population.

“In general the region is aging and isn’t growing or attracting people like the southeast part of the state,” Nielsen says. “... It’s going to need to replace people.”

Cheshire County and New Hampshire aren’t alone in facing these challenges, Nielsen says. While most New England states have higher unemployment rates, Vermont’s rate clocked in at 2.2% in October, making it the lowest in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maine’s 2.8% unemployment rate in October was a record low for the state.  

Nielsen says Vermont has many of the same issues with attracting and retaining workers, from the need for available and affordable housing to broadband access.

More urban areas in New Hampshire are bucking the trends and growing their labor force by attracting people, but she notes that might be a challenge for other parts of the state.

“Younger generations want amenities that rural areas don’t have, like fast internet,” she says. “... It’s a complex picture.”

LABOR SHORTAGE ACROSS INDUSTRIES

Employers from a range of industries have felt the brunt of low unemployment.

Cheshire Medical Center’s director of human resources, Lisa Sandstrum, says the hospital experiences labor shortages across the board and partners with its affiliate, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, to create and explore effective workforce development programs to hire and retain employees.

At Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, HR Director Dawn Broussard wrote in an email that the institution sees a dip in job applications when unemployment rates are low, just as other businesses likely experience. For example, she says the university recently received 41 applications in a month for an administrative position that would typically garner 35 to 40 applicants within the first day.

“Those fluctuations are something we are accustomed to and it’s important to point out that we are still finding highly skilled, competitive candidates,” Broussard wrote. “The primary difference is that we tend to keep postings for open positions up longer since we are receiving a lower volume of applications.”

Ashley Guion lives in Swanzey and is a certified public accountant with Nathan Wechsler Co.’s Keene office. The business has a Concord office with 30 professional staff, she says, and a Lebanon office with seven people. There are two CPAs in Keene along with an office manager, but Guion says the three offices use technology to host meetings and stay connected.

Nathan Wechsler is hiring most of the time for a position at one of its branches, but Guion says she recalls that being the trend since she joined the field about five years ago.

“Every firm is completely overbooked,” she says. “We have too many clients than we know what to do with.”

The Keene area could handle another CPA firm opening without taking much of a hit, she adds. She pointed to the accounting industry, in which she says many newcomers aren’t willing to work 80-hour weeks like their predecessors might have. At career fairs, Guion says the motivating factors with applicants tend not to be salaries but benefits, such as insurance, vacation days, flexible scheduling, telecommuting and having Fridays off during the summers.

Between low unemployment and an industry that’s traditionally demanded long hours, Guion says “the ball is in the future prospective employee’s court.”

Restaurants and retailers face the hiring hurdles, too.

Michael Rigoli owns Fritz on Keene’s Main Street, where the majority of his staff members are Keene State College students. While he typically gets an influx of applications in June and July as juniors and seniors return to the city for the next semester, he says that didn’t happen this year and he’s not sure why.

While most of the college students he’s hired have been diligent employees, Rigoli acknowledged some of the drawbacks to relying on that population. For example, he notes, he doesn’t typically receive many applications in the winter months or when school is in session, so that can be a difficult time to fill open positions. Keene State has several breaks throughout the year, and during those stints Fritz loses some of its workers temporarily.

And every May, there’s a chance Rigoli’s employees will either graduate or leave for the summer.

“They have a future outside of here, and I know that they’re not gonna be here forever, and that’s the other part of it,” he says. “Everybody that comes to work here is here for a period of time and will go someplace else.”  

Tracy Gunn of Munsonville owns a few businesses in the area and agreed that hiring college students is helpful for filling jobs but challenging when they leave for the holidays. Gunn is the proprietor of Life is Sweet, a candy and dessert shop in Keene and Brattleboro; the Flight Deck at Keene’s airport in Swanzey; and Willie Mac’s, an Irish Pub just outside downtown Keene.

Hiring people “is my biggest struggle honestly at all of them,” she says, and it’s been like that for the past four or five years.

When the Brattleboro candy store opened in October, she received plenty of job applications, which she attributes to the newness of the business in town. Life is Sweet in Keene, however, has had a high turnover rate with its staff.

“I feel like everyone in town has worked for me at some point,” Gunn says.

The biggest difficulty is finding and retaining reliable cooks, she says. The food service industry is, unfortunately, notorious for employees with substance use issues — Ben’s Friends is a support group in South Carolina launched specifically for those employees and is now in eight states, although not New England — and Gunn says she’s encountered workers with their own struggles.

At the Flight Deck, she says there’s a perception that it’s too far out of the way, so she gets far fewer job applications at that restaurant than Willie Mac’s on Winchester Street.

“Keene is a little myopic in that if it’s not downtown, it’s not convenient,” Gunn notes.

With high turnover comes high costs for a business, she points out. Hiring someone is an investment, she says, and if it doesn’t pay off the employer spends more time training a new person down the road.

“We definitely have a labor shortage, and having a labor shortage definitely affects how we do business,” she says, “because sometimes you have to settle maybe for somebody you wouldn’t necessarily hire, but you’re willing to give it a try because you need somebody.

“Nobody opens a business thinking that they’re gonna settle for staff.”

Not every employer has been feeling such labor shortage pains, however.

At the Monadnock Food Co-op in Keene, General Manager Michael Faber says the local grocer received 500 applications this year, which he notes is comparable to 2018, and most positions are filled within two to six weeks of opening.

While the co-op’s turnover is “well below” industry average, he says the business isn’t entirely insulated from the low unemployment.

“We certainly see and feel some of the same things that other businesses experience,” Faber says.

The co-op is grateful, he says, that it’s become a destination for prospective employees. Offering fair wages, benefits and health insurance to all full-time positions, Faber says it’s an attractive place for entry-level jobs.

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS

For the employers who are finding it difficult to hire and retain workers, programs at area universities and colleges are finding creative ways to help.

Pierre Morton, the executive director of career development at Franklin Pierce, is organizing the January launch of the Career Closet, a program aimed at taking care of the basics. Some students “are lacking the professional attire to even go on an interview,” he says, so this will allow them to take and keep up to three items of professional clothing.

Donations are accepted at the Manor on the university’s campus, and a donation box will be placed at Targett Dry Cleaners on Ashuelot Street in Keene. Requested items including women’s blouses and pants suits and men’s blazers and slacks.

The university is also examining the reasons its graduates leave the area and how to address them.

“Part of that has to do with the students’ ability to really earn a living,” he notes.

They have to earn a higher income if they are burdened with a lot of student loan debt out of the gate, and that can make it difficult to resist job offers in bigger cities, he says. In response, Franklin Pierce is offering a loan relief program to all incoming freshmen next fall. For those who graduate and earn less than $43,000 annually, the Pierce Pledge program steps in and offers assistance via quarterly reimbursements for their federal and private loans. Administered by Ardeo Education Solutions, the program continues until the student’s income surpasses $43,000 a year or their loans are repaid.

High housing costs can be another barrier to staying in the region, Morton says, so the university reserves two dozen dorm rooms over the summer for students who get an internship in the state.

“Although we can’t impact the housing crisis in New Hampshire, we are certainly doing what we can,” Morton says.

Internships are another major factor in funneling students into the workforce, he says, and that depends heavily on building relationships with companies in

 the area.

“In my role, that’s what I do. We have the department goal of preparing students, etcetera,” he says, but his job is to make connections with businesses and find out what their needs are.

Morton calls C&S Wholesale Grocers “a shining example” of how to create a pipeline serving multiple academic programs that continues yearly.

“I think they’ve already hired two of our students, and this program has only been around for less than three years,” he says.

While a communication major might traditionally pursue internships solely in journalism, Morton says, those days are long gone. Working with a company while still in college can help determine if a career track is a good fit, but it also develops universal skills that will be useful in any job.

Communication students at Franklin Pierce are interning at Microcatheter Components in Jaffrey and learning about human resources, social media and marketing campaigns, finance and accounting, and supply chain management.

“They will have knowledge of other crucial business functions that will put them ahead. … Many of us are not even in the fields that we thought we were gonna go into when we got our degrees,” Morton says.

He referred to the knowledge students gained as “soft skills,” and Morton isn’t the only one talking about them.

Martha Mott is the program director of WorkReadyNH, a tuition-free workforce development program in the state’s seven community colleges. She says the program began eight years ago in response to employers’ quest for people with soft skills, such as conflict resolution, team-building, punctuality, ethics, interpersonal relations and safety — “all those things that really make a workforce thrive.”

Paid for with the New Hampshire Job Training Fund, the program is tuition-free for New Hampshire residents over 18, and Mott says there have been graduates as old as 80. Participants also vary in educational background, she notes, from no degree to a master’s. There have been more than 3,500 graduates statewide, with River Valley Community College recently wrapping up its 89th class.

Mott works closely with River Valley Community College’s implementation of WorkReadyNH at its Keene, Claremont and Lebanon campuses. The three-week course includes an assessment of reading, math and literacy skills, presentations from local professionals, and mock interviews with area companies. At the Keene campus, partner businesses have included Cheshire Medical Center, the Masiello Group, Mascoma Savings Bank and Monadnock Paper Mills.

Each class engages in a group project, Mott says, and earns two certificates for their resume at the end of the course.

“These skills are really valuable all around, regardless of sector,” Mott says.

She often hears that retention is difficult because employees lack these soft skills, she says, so this program is what the community colleges offer to help bolster the workforce.

Sometimes WorkReadyNH can be overlooked, Mott says. Enrollment numbers can be low at times, from two people to two dozen, but classes have included employees whose company closed, high school graduates and stay-at-home mothers reentering the workforce.

Attendance to the program can be difficult because classes run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, but she points out that soft skills have inherent value that often goes unnoticed until there’s a problem.

“These are lifelong skills that change people’s lives,” Mott says.

Phil Suter, president and CEO of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, lauded companies that are working with area colleges on internships and

other programs.

“Employers have to realize that workforce isn’t something that’s going to be delivered to them,” Suter says. “It’s something they have to develop.”

There can be creative and innovative ways to tackle the situation, he says. Suter posed a question about what’s being done to help employ people who have disabilities, who were formerly incarcerated and who are in recovery from drugs or alcohol. Companies might have to take risks on those people, he notes, but they would be filling positions while also supporting the community.

Low unemployment has been an ongoing problem, but there are other challenges more unique to the state and some to the county, such as high housing costs, little childcare availability and a lack of quality internet access. Those might be holding the region back, Suter says, but he’s not sure any of them are a deal-breaker.

Marketing the area to prospective employees is another crucial piece of the workforce puzzle, and that’s where chambers of commerce act. There are internal efforts focused on keeping people in the area, he says, but there’s also a task force within the Keene Chamber with the job of promoting the region to attract new people. That group is on the verge of hiring an agency to take the project to the next level, Suter says.

Sierra Hubbard is a staff writer at The Keene Sentinel