November 3, 2018

by Kyle Stucker

ROCHESTER — The local business community says the recent closures of Pear Tree in Dover and 900 Degrees in Portsmouth due to labor shortages make it more important than ever that the Seacoast and state strategically grow their workforce.

While the aforementioned companies are a retail store and restaurant, respectfully, local leaders say the issue rings especially true in the advanced manufacturing sector. The sector’s skilled worker shortages have been well publicized as the area’s unemployment rate has hovered around a low 2.2 percent.

“It’s here now and we really need to catch up,” said Sean Hoeing, Safran Aerospace Composites’ human resources manager.

Hoeing was among the roughly 30 area business leaders, officials, educators and community college students in attendance at a special workforce development forum this week at Great Bay Community College’s Advanced Technology and Academic Center in Rochester. The session highlighted the need to better use the state’s youth, women and older workers to overcome a number of challenges, particularly those in advanced manufacturing.

Manufacturing accounts for roughly 69,000 jobs or 12 percent of New Hampshire’s total employment, according to Will Arvelo, the director of the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development. It represents the state’s third largest job sector, behind healthcare and retail.

At the same time, Arvelo said roughly 60 percent of students who graduate from Granite State high schools ultimately leave the state. Arvelo cited that figure as one of the indicators the general public isn’t fully aware of what the state’s manufacturing sector actually does and pays — not only for young people, but also for older folks looking for mid- and late-career employment changes.

“One of things we need to do as a state, which we don’t do very well, is market ourselves,” said Arvelo. “I believe more folks are leaving the state than coming in.”

To Carolyn Eastman, an education consultant and the director of school development for KnowledgeWorks, much of the problem stems from stigma. She believes blanket misconceptions about manufacturing — such as all of the jobs are the back-breaking manual labor positions of years past — are pushing youth and adults away.

“My generation grew up with, ‘Getting to college is your golden ticket,’ and so you’re having to change a mindset of a lot of generations of parents who believe college is (the only path),” said Eastman, a former Oyster River School District assistant superintendent.

Eastman said employers like Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and fields like composites offer higher-skill, higher-paying jobs than many of those obtainable through a number of university degree tracts. She said they also often come with the added bonus of not incurring a mountain of student debt to get in the door, thanks to partnerships, internships and unique pilot programs companies are forging with local high schools and community colleges.

Based on her experience, Eastman said changing the current “equity problem” in local school districts and homes would go along way.

″(It won’t change) until we put together a menu and list all of the opportunities available to all kids, instead of giving certain opportunities to the kid won’t go to college and certain opportunities to the kid we think will go to college,” she said. “That limited scope we get in school is not a fraction of who a kid is, but we make all sorts of determinations about that kid based on that limited scope we have and we deny kids opportunities because think of them as a certain type of student.”

Area resident Kristi Braddish said she, too, once had a narrow conception of manufacturing. That is, until she was laid off earlier this year from her clerical job in a health care office, referred to Great Bay by state employment agencies, and enrolled in the school’s bonding and finishing program.

“I love it here,” Braddish said. “I was just really astounded by the interest I had in this field. It was something I never thought I would do in a million years. What I like most about it so far is the job stability, the demand for it, the teachers … and I like doing hands-on learning.”

Braddish’s story highlights a significant issue in the state, according to Cara Burzynski, president of AeroDynamics Inc., a Seabrook-based metal finishing firm that works with defense and aerospace clients.

While data shows New Hampshire does a better job of retaining its female youth than its male youth post-graduation, Burzynski said the stigmas surrounding advanced manufacturing still vastly limit women’s interest, job opportunities and career growth in the field.

“It’s baffling to see how few women there are,” said Burzynski, a fellow midlife career shifter who came to AeroDynamics five years ago after spending 30 years as a nurse.

It’s why Burzynski said she has developed recruitment incentive programs at her companies and invested in training and advancing the women they already employ. Prior to Burzynski, AeroDynamics had zero women in management roles. That number has since steadily increased as the overall percentage of female employees has also risen to 40 percent to the company’s workforce.

“When I came on board, I saw women who we were really under-utilizing,” Burzynski said. “One thing I looked at was, ‘Why are these people not advancing? Why are we holding them back?’”

To officials at Safran, a Rochester company whose workforce is 30 percent women, better interaction with young students and families is key to overcoming the challenges Eastman and Burzynski describe.

Hoeing said the 5-year-old company is just starting to see results from its recruiting efforts at the middle school level. It recently received an application from a high schooler who said Safran made an impression on him while he was in eighth grade.

Area school districts are in the process of putting more emphasis on student participation in hands-on fields, and Hoeing said he hopes it continues. He praised Dover for designing its new high school so that the career technical education programs are front and center, rather than being tucked away in their own wing like in years past. He also said Rochester’s ongoing renovation project at its outdated 1991 Richard W. Creteau Regional Technology Center is another step in the right direction.

As continued job automation looms, industry leaders say they can’t ignore the fact a number of today’s jobs will soon be obsolete. Rather than automation instilling panic and fear, though, they say it should be looked at as an opportunity to create new jobs and find ways to retain the valuable knowledge of veteran employees who are nearing retirement age.

Arvelo said he believes the Granite State can grow its economy by taking a leading role in automation.

“There’s an opportunity there,” he said. “We have to think of education as a lifelong pathway because things are changing so quickly. New jobs are being created and old jobs are becoming obsolete and that’s the world we live in. The advantage young people have is they can make that shift relatively quickly.”

Upcoming events and seminars related to workforce development include a Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce event called “Building the Workforce the Seacoast Needs.” That Dec. 5 event at Granite State College in Rochester is geared toward helping businesses think of different ways to develop its labor pool.

Original Story: Seacoastonline/Portsmouth Herald –