Seacoast manufacturers hope to inspire students to pursue opportunities
ROCHESTER — Despite the unemployment rate, high-tech manufacturers that are expanding are frustrated at the limited pool of qualified applicants in the region.
About a dozen representatives from area companies discussed their needs and challenges Wednesday during a Seacoast Manufacturing Exchange.
After building a 343,712-square-foot plant near Skyhaven Airport, Albany Engineering Composites and Safran Aerospace Composites plans to hire 500 employees to produce parts for the aerospace industry in the next five years.
"We're in super growth mode," said Deanna Waldrop, senior director of LEAP Program Development at AEC.
Even though a new Advanced Composites Manufacturing program at Great Bay Community College's Advanced Technology & Academic Center in Rochester produced its first class in December and has a waiting list for the next three sessions this year, it will only produce about half of the necessary workforce.
As a result, the company is concerned about hiring qualified employees from a shrinking labor pool that is in high demand, according to Don Rose, director of Facilities & Capital Planning at AEC.
"We're competing for the same people," Rose said.
Ed Cotter, president at ContiTech Thermopol LLC, said the company also looking to expand its workforce — especially with people who are experienced in robotics and understand schematics — as the company has added 100,000 square feet in the past five years and has 360 employees at its Somersworth facility.
After determining that the pool of potential workers isn't as large or as qualified, Marcus Mann, coordinator of Employee Growth & Development at Turbocam in Barrington, said the company has started to hire people as part of a training program that allows them to obtain the necessary skills while earning a reduced rate of pay.
"We need to find people with the right aptitude," Mann said, adding the right people can learn and grow into having a better paying career.
Joe Shean, president of RP Abrasives in Rochester, said even though technology and innovations have caused a reduction in employees, it has also increased overall production.
"The output of the New Hampshire manufacturing community continues to grow," Shean said.
Shean suggested area guidance counselors take monthly tours of Seacoast manufacturers to help promote viable career opportunities for the future workforce.
Mary Ellen Humphrey, economic development specialist for the city, said officials are working to expand the internship program at Career Technical Center at Dover High School.
"We have to take the stigma away (about modern manufacturing)," Humphrey said. "It's not the factory my grandmother used to work in."
Additionally, the Regional Technical Center at Spaulding High School offers the only chance in the state for young students to take a class in precision engineering.
As of November, the unemployment rate in the Dover-Rochester area was 4.3 percent and 4.8 in the state. A year before, it was 5.1 percent for the area and 5.3 percent in New Hampshire, according to a Dec. 26 Local Area Unemployment Statistics Report by the N.H. Employment Security, Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.
For the manufacturing workforce — including machinists, assembler and fabricators, tool and die makers and computer-controlled machine tool operators — the unemployment rate of 9.2 percent is substantially higher compared to other professions, said Annette Nielson, economist with the N.H. Employment Security Department.
"It is a bit of a conundrum that we have unemployment with production occupations," Nielson said, adding as advances in technology streamline the industry, it's essential that manufacturers update the pipeline for the future workforce.
While there is a pool of experienced out-of-work or underemployed workers, Nielson said some of them do not have some of the necessary skills, especially involving computers, used in modern facilities.
She said the most-desired employees continue to have work while others have had to pursue other careers.