NH needs more housing, young people to combat worker shortage

Sarah Van Valkenburg of Manchester works on her classwork in a common area at Manchester Community College on Friday. Keeping students in New Hampshire after graduation is a key to solving the state’s worker shortage, according to business leaders.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story kicks off a new series on finding solutions to workforce issues in New Hampshire.

What's Working

More businesses are building bridges with schools to grab the interest of students earlier in their career decision-making.

Hospitals are adding student loan forgiveness programs for nurses.

And some firms are ramping up efforts to improve the work environment and make career advancement clearer.

Such efforts aim to lure and retain workers in this era of record employment in New Hampshire.

Two major issues are holding back the state’s economy from employing even more people — too many young people fleeing the state and too little affordable housing for new workers, according to a survey of a dozen-plus community and business leaders.

“The tight labor market is the largest inhibitor to New Hampshire’s continued growth,” said Tom Farrelly, executive director of the New England region at Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate firm.

“I believe the top priority would be to stem the ‘brain drain’ of the youth in New Hampshire who after graduating from college feel the need to leave New Hampshire to find a higher-paying job in what is ‘perceived’ as a more exciting area in a different part of the country,” Farrelly said.

Affordable housing for young professionals was what Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, listed as the most important issue to recruit and retain workers.

“That and overcoming stereotypes that there isn’t enough going on here,” Sink said. “Once younger professions get to know the community and what it offers, they never want to leave.”

Should I stay or should I go?

Many 20- and 30-somethings surveyed in December 2017 were open to moving out of New Hampshire in the next two years — 14% said they definitely would consider it, 16% probably would ponder it and another 22% were unsure, said Will Stewart, executive director of Stay Work Play New Hampshire, a nonprofit that promotes the state as a place for young people and recent college graduates.

“I think there must be a multitude of solutions from both the private and public sectors,” Stewart said last week.

In recent years, the state has been doing better with a net gain of more 20-somethings moving into the state rather than out.

“The transformation (in net migration) was greatest among those in their 20s, who had an average annual migration gain of 1,200 between 2013 and 2017 compared to an average loss of 1,500 annually from 2008 and 2012,” wrote University of New Hampshire senior demographer Kenneth Johnson.

“We need to focus on the three Rs — recruit, retain and retrain,” said Matt Cookson, executive director of the New Hampshire Tech Alliance. “I wish I had a simple solution. It’s not simple. It requires messaging, marketing and myth-busting.”

During a recent two-month period, there were 18,159 New Hampshire online job postings, according to state officials.

But not everybody gets by on working one job.

“Some people have two or three jobs in order to survive,” said Lisa Strand, who recently moved into a new Nashua apartment development partially built with low-income housing tax credits.

Mike Skelton, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber, said attracting young people and families to the state is most important.

“To do so, individual communities and our state as a whole need to take stock of what assets and amenities are attractive to young families and ensure they have them in place and are promoting them eternally,” Skelton said.

Pricey housing, lingering debt

Homes won’t come cheaply. Last month, the median price for a single-family house statewide hit a record $315,000.

Martha Leighton, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Elliot Health System, cited new nurses arriving with large college loans as a top problem.

Students are “oftentimes living home at first, working, and in six months get their first tuition loan bill, and they realize they’re not going to move out of their parents’ house,” she said.

Elliot has responded by launching a loan forgiveness program.

Catholic Medical Center offers new nurses help to pay back loans and has started a licensed nursing assistant (LNA) apprenticeship program.

“We’ve heard inspiring stories from nearly every student who would not have otherwise been able to get this kind of education and training,” said CMC President and CEO Joseph Pepe.

Fidelity Investments, which employs more than 5,000 in New Hampshire, is redefining how it attracts top talent.

“For instance, we are connecting with prospective employees earlier and in new places, working to drive awareness of broad career paths in financial services and optimizing our messaging and marketing to attract top talent with diverse perspectives,” said Joe Murray, vice president of governmental relations and public affairs.

And after they’re hired, “we want employees to have the ability to focus on their individual career development, so they can blaze the trail they choose,” he said.

Southern New Hampshire University, which employs more than 4,000 in Manchester, thinks about how to develop new employees personally and professionally, according to Danielle Stanton, executive vice president of human resources.

“Last year, SNHU started building out a full talent development team to orchestrate programs for leadership, managers and employees,” she said. “In 2018, SNHU also launched a new e-learning management system for our employees to build and manage our talent development.”

Starting early

The Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire is partnering with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation in “targeting five school districts around the state to encourage local business leaders, the local chamber of commerce and the school district itself, from top to bottom, to work together to get young people out in the community working at local businesses for job shadows and internships — for high school credit,” said BIA President Jim Roche.

“The idea is that if more young people are exposed to job and career opportunities while still in high school, they’ll stay local when they finish high school, community college or a four-year institution. We hope to double this effort next year,” Roche said.

Katie Merrow, vice president of community impact at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, said businesses offering internships and apprenticeships often boost the odds of students staying in their home state.

“We are looking to increase the pool (of skilled workers) in significant ways,” Merrow said.

Alan Chong, director and CEO of the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, said he would like local educational institutions to offer degrees that focus on running nonprofits. He said some museum positions have gone unfilled for months.

“It’s more difficult for us because we don’t have unlimited resources to pay people” like bigger businesses do, Chong said.

For others, the job requires marketing the state.

It’s “telling the story of New Hampshire as a place with a combination of lifestyle and advanced economy that is unique in eastern North America,” said Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the state Department of Business and Economic Affairs. “For example, evolving someone’s reaction to our marketing from ‘let’s go there for a week’ to ‘let’s move there’ is one of the main ways we can do that for employers.

What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education. Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.

Sunday, November 10, 2019