At Filtrine

Keene Mayor George Hansel, right, speaks to Gov. Chris Sununu and other officials Friday morning during a tour of Filtrine Manufacturing Co. in Keene, part of an event to launch N.H. Manufacturing Month.

Gov. Chris Sununu called for greater investments in workforce training and housing projects Friday morning while visiting a Keene company to kick off an annual initiative highlighting the Granite State’s manufacturing industry.

Keene Mayor George Hansel welcomed Sununu, other state officials and staff from New Hampshire’s four congressional offices to Filtrine Manufacturing Co., the Kit Street firm that produces drinking water appliances and is owned by Hansel’s family. George Hansel serves as vice president and manager of innovation and engineering for the company.

The officials delivered a series of remarks to recognize the start of this year’s N.H. Manufacturing Month, which began in 2013 as part of a national effort showcasing manufacturers, and later toured Filtrine’s facilities.

In his remarks, which were livestreamed to Filtrine employees, Sununu said New Hampshire is well-positioned to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic’s “devastating” effect on the state economy.

Part of that recovery, he explained, includes making the manufacturing industry more accessible to young people through programs like the Dual and Concurrent Enrollment STEM Scholarship, which offers free college-level courses to high school students. Sununu also called for further investments in the state’s university system and community colleges to prepare students for manufacturing jobs.

“It’s really making sure that we’re training the workforce of tomorrow,” he said.

Sununu, a Republican running for re-election, acknowledged that a lack of available housing in New Hampshire — which has a statewide rental housing vacancy rate of 1.8 percent, according to N.H. Housing, an independent state agency — limits companies’ ability to attract workers. He encouraged municipalities to work with local businesses on housing developments and said he would continue to support legislation authorizing tax incentives for workforce housing and requiring that local officials pass a training course on their community’s development process.

“[Businesses] know what the needs are,” Sununu said. “… Knowing where your employee base is coming from is a big part of understanding what type of housing your needs are going to be.”

State Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, noted in his comments that the Monadnock Region has a higher percentage of its workforce in manufacturing than anywhere else in the state and echoed the governor’s calls for industry-related education. But the two clashed over a funding dispute in the state’s 2020–21 budget, which was enacted last year after Sununu vetoed a previous version passed by the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Speaking with the media Friday morning, Sununu criticized Democratic lawmakers for rejecting his proposal to give $24 million to state universities for workforce training, including $9 million that would have funded manufacturing programs at Keene State College.

But Kahn, who is also running for re-election, said legislators opted to prioritize freezing undergraduate tuition at state universities for two years rather than funding the one-time investment in workforce training. He explained that Democrats preferred the tuition freeze because it will temporarily keep higher education more affordable for Granite State students.

Other speakers Friday morning included Will Arvelo, director of the N.H. Division of Economic Development, and Zenagui Brahim, president of the N.H. Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which advises Granite State manufacturers.

Hansel then gave Sununu and other attendees a tour of Filtrine’s 100,000-square-foot facility, during which he highlighted the company’s technological innovations over its 119-year history and emphasized the importance of manufacturing to the local economy.

In his introductory remarks, Hansel pointed to companies like Smiths Medical and Markem-Imaje, both of which have production facilities in Keene that have helped provide medical equipment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sununu noted that those companies were among the hundreds of Granite State manufacturers that began making critical materials following the coronavirus outbreak.

“During the initial period where everybody was having trouble … finding any PPE, it was our manufacturers that were providing a lot of those initial pieces to us until we could get the larger buys [of equipment],” he said.

Still, Hansel explained that Monadnock Region manufacturers are struggling to find applicants for their open positions — including Filtrine, which he said employs 96 people and typically has about five jobs available. Hansel added that he is focused on outreach initiatives to students and encouraged young people to consider going into the manufacturing industry.

“There’s something special about working every day and leaving something tangible behind,” he said.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.