We’re all due for some good news, and Smiths Medical delivered some for the region when it announced last week it had entered into a government partnership that would drive a plant expansion at its Keene facility and create 100 new jobs. Making the news sweeter, it positions the Keene facility at the forefront of efforts to beat back the COVID-19 virus through the nationwide vaccination efforts that will be necessary once a vaccine becomes available.
The partnership is among Smiths Medical, whose U.S. headquarters is in Minneapolis, and two agencies of the federal defense and health and human services departments. It will significantly expand the Keene operation’s capacity for production of its integrated hypodermic needle and syringe units through a government infusion of $20 million into a $38 million capital expansion project at the Bowman Drive plant. This will enable the company to fulfill manufacturing for the government order of 78.6 million units it also landed as part of the partnership.
The page 1 headline when we reported on the partnership called it “a shot in the arm against coronavirus,” but it’s also a shot in the arm for a region struggling to begin recovering from the COVID-19 shuttering. Not only is it a major construction project for the region. It also will provide a significant boost to local employment, with a Keene facility manager telling WMUR that hiring is already underway and would be drawn mostly from the Monadnock Region.
This news also runs counter to a discouraging trend of contractions the area has seen by its larger employers. The most recent was Charlestown’s Whelen Engineering, but among others have been reports of belt-tightening in recent years at Markem-Imaje, Liberty Mutual, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Timken Co., Keene State College and Cheshire Medical Center.
Added to them is the shutdown of Vermont Yankee, which provided meaningful high-skilled jobs to area residents on both sides of the Connecticut River. This trend has seriously impacted the region, stagnating economic growth, reducing the tax base and straining support for area nonprofit organizations, including the United Way and important social service agencies. And this was all before the onset of the pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown.
To its credit, the region has not stood still in the face of this large-employer trend. Workforce development efforts are underway to help businesses attract and retain better-trained employees. Also promising are plans announced last fall for the Monadnock Business Partnership Hub, a makerspace collaboration among Keene State College, Monadnock Economic Development Corp., the city of Keene and area businesses that aims to spur innovation and collaboration in precision manufacturing and design. In addition, entrepreneurship initiatives spearheaded by the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and other business incubator and makerspace programs have borne fruit (disclosure: Sentinel President and COO Terrence Williams is on the Hannah Grimes board).
The region also has a history of the smaller business sector stepping up during times of large-employer downsizing to provide job-growth opportunity, and the sector has done so again during the pre-pandemic period of the recent contractions. In Cheshire County, according to data from the YourEconomy.org research tool for economic analysis, firms with 2-9 employees showed a net gain of almost 1,000 jobs from 2017 to 2018. Even more striking, 2018 job gains at new startups were almost 5,500 over the preceding year, fueling some 86 percent of the county’s job gains and nearing a doubling of the job gains in start-up businesses over an earlier, 2011-12 period.
Without doubt, the fallout from the COVID-19 shutdown has walloped area businesses of all sizes. The region will need to call even more on its efforts to spur small business growth and raise the level of its workforce for employers of all sizes. The Keene State-based makerspace hub and other workforce initiatives underway with all the area higher education institutions will surely help.
Those, however, will take time as the region strives to get back on its feet. Meantime, the nation needs to ready itself to make COVID-19 vaccination widely available when a vaccine is developed, and the Smiths Medical partnership is an important and encouraging step in that direction for the country. But it also couldn’t come at a better time for the region.
A shot in the arm, indeed.