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September 24. 2013 6:50PM

NH needs more skilled workers, economists say


Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System, left, joins fellow economists Dennis Delay of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, and Brian Gottlob, right, principal of PoliCon Research in discussing current economic trends with Ronald H. Covey, center, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Bank, at the annual Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce Economic Forecast. (DAVE SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — New Hampshire needs to focus on developing and attracting skilled workers if the state’s economic recovery is going to pick up steam, according to a panel of economists at the annual Manchester Chamber of Commerce Economic Forecast.

Hiring has not been strong enough to get the economy in true growth mode because of a mismatch between workforce skills and the job openings, said Brian Gottlob, principal of PoliCon Research and one of three speakers on Tuesday at the Derryfield Restaurant.

The state offers an attractive environment for business, they said, which creates a demand for employees. But New Hampshire has not been attracting qualified workers since the end of the great in-migration from Massachusetts in the 1980s and 1990s.

Massachusetts, which has a higher number of skilled workers as a percentage of the workforce, is one of only 18 states in the country that has recovered all the jobs it lost in the recession.

New Hampshire had nearly 650,000 jobs in 2007, before the recession hit, and is still about 5,000 jobs short of a full recovery based on the August report by New Hampshire Employment Security.

“We’re not shedding jobs, but we’re not hiring at a rate we would see historically, given the decline in unemployment claims,” Gottlob said.

Help wanted advertising is as high as before the recession, he said, but too many jobs are going unfilled.

“Highly skilled labor and talent are in short supply in this country and in New Hampshire,” he said. “It’s a matter of producing them in this state, but also a matter of attracting them. That’s been the key to our past success. We have to ask ourselves, ’Is New Hampshire as attractive to those well-skilled individuals as it is to the businesses that would hire them?’ ”

Fellow panelist Dennis Delay of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies agreed.

“This economic recovery for New Hampshire is profoundly different than any other going back to the 1960s,” he said. “It is not being accompanied by people moving into the state.”

Population growth of 10,000 to 20,000 people a year fueled the state’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s, but net population has been essentially flat for the past five years, with trends not seen since the decade between 1940 and 1950, Delay said.

With no immigration and an aging population, the state is growing short on the demographic that drives the economy — the group Delay called “wealth creators,” young professionals in their mid-20s to late 40s. Instead, the state is becoming dominated by “wealth protectors,” between ages 50 and 70.

If current trends continue, he said, by 2040 there will be an even split between the two, which does not bode well for the economy or the investment in education and workforce training needed to reverse the trend.

Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System, described efforts to better align the education of young workers with the needs of industry in the state through the state’s community colleges.

“If we had the appropriately skilled workforce, we could accelerate growth, but if we don’t deal with the supply side, we are going to have continued slow growth,” he said.

Jobs in computer science, math, business and financial operations, health care support and in technical fields like installation, maintenance and repairs are going begging. “People say employers are just being too picky, but I don’t buy it,” he said. “Wouldn’t you be picky if you were hiring?”

Despite the skills gap, the overall forecast was for continued slow growth in the next 12 months, barring a cataclysmic event in Europe or a protracted government shutdown.

As the housing market improves, in-migration from the Bay State is likely to pick up again, and workforce training initiatives now in place will begin to have more impact. But efforts to attract young professionals through programs like “Stay Work Play NH,” will be more important than ever.

“We can’t rely as we have in the past on being a high quality of life state, and think everyone is just going to migrate here,” Delay said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com