Manufacturing accounts for 12.4 percent of the state’s total private sector employment, according to 2020 statistics provided by N.H. Employment Security, exceeding the national average of 10.2 percent. More than 67,000 workers statewide were employed in manufacturing in 2020, according to NHES data, about 4,650 of them in Cheshire County.

But in the current economy, manufacturing, like other employment sectors, is facing a worker shortage. Recent hiring and recruitment trends for manufacturing jobs have become unsustainable, according to Keene Mayor George Hansel, who is a vice president and part owner of Filtrine, a local company that produces water-purification systems.

It’s no longer enough to put out the “We’re hiring” sign.

Hansel and other local manufacturers gathered last week at Keene State College to discuss the challenges facing the industry, particularly workforce issues.

The session made clear that the shortage of employees remains top of mind for leaders of these companies. AB Tech Manufacturing in Fitzwilliam, a maker of precision motion components, currently employs 25 but could use 10 more employees, company president Ken Abbott told the gathering. With the additional workers, the company could clear out the biggest backlog it has ever had and double its revenues, Abbott said.

The region’s tight housing market and lack of availability of child care are just two issues hampering employee recruitment, local manufacturers say.

During the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, New England mill owners faced some of the same challenges manufacturers face today. They soon realized they would need to provide attractive wages and perhaps even housing to draw workers and keep them on the payroll. In some cases, “company towns” developed as the mills built not only houses, but also churches, schools, libraries and other amenities.

In 2022’s tight labor market, which puts job seekers in the driver’s seat, firms first need to review their compensation packages, including salary, benefits and other perks. Are they competitive? Manufacturing workers in the state were making an average of $1,159 per week in 2020, according to NHES, which translates into just under $29 per hour for a 40-hour work week.

But then they might need to go further.

Besides a competitive compensation package and opportunities for advancement, today’s workers seek the following amenities, according to surveys by the global commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield: flexible scheduling, especially in summer; onsite food and fitness options, including food trucks and outdoor walking trails; access to public transportation or parking, preferably with electric vehicle charging stations; windows for natural light and fresh air; improved restrooms and break areas; day care for children and/or pets.

Local companies should certainly consider providing some of these amenities, if not individually, then perhaps collectively. If a single firm can’t afford to offer on-site child care to employees, for example, perhaps several can pool resources to create a day-care center, especially if the companies are within the same business park. Flexible scheduling is also a perk companies may be able to offer.

The region’s lack of housing presents a thornier problem. There simply isn’t enough existing housing stock to meet demand, which makes recruiting workers from outside the region difficult. Short of companies building homes for their workers, the answer to this problem seems to lie in recruiting people who are already living in the region. Presumably, most local residents who want a manufacturing job already have one, so further recruitment will likely entail creating apprenticeships through career-tech programs in the schools to create a pipeline of prospective employees. That’s something a number of local firms have already started.

Hansel’s suggestion that local manufacturing firms work together to solve these problems is good because most of these companies are small and individually their resources might be somewhat limited. Together they can do more. Their survival in this new labor market might depend on it.

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