Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster

Representing the 2nd District of New Hampshire
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Keene Sentinel: Businesses talk about strengths, roadblocks to developing workforce in the area

Feb 20, 2014
In The News

Businesses in the Monadnock Region know what they need to grow: More training in high-demand fields, better infrastructure to help convince employees to relocate here and ways to reduce the debt burdening recent graduates.

Those were the top challenges laid out in a discussion Wednesday organized by U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., who asked to hear about local strengths and barriers in developing a strong workforce here, and how the federal government could help to ease those problems.

The Monadnock Region is ahead of the curve in terms of innovation and collaboration, participants said, with school and business partnerships such as the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing and nonprofit organizations such as Hannah Grimes —which hosted Wednesday’s meeting — both of which help prepare the future workforce.

But there are still businesses that can’t find high school or college graduates who are prepared for the workforce, small businesses that can’t afford to pay recent graduates enough to make their monthly student loan payments, and busi tract top talent to a rural New Hampshire region.

Kuster also heard repeatedly about the need for money to train teachers in high-demand fields, such as manufacturing — which can be “phenomenally difficult,” said Phil Suter, executive director of the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing. The center is a partnership among Keene State College, the Keene School District, River Valley Community College and the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce that aims to train workers for local manufacturing jobs.

“We kind of get stuck,” said Suter, who also serves as interim president of the Keene chamber. “There’s a huge speed bump. We know what we need to do, but we don’t have the resources to do it.”

Teachers don’t have the industry experience, and few people who’ve worked in the industry know how to teach.

Christopher Gray, who teaches courses in manufacturing and sustainable product design at Keene State and River Valley, has straddled the worlds of manufacturing and education for his entire career.

When he graduated from Keene State with an industrial education degree in 1986, Keene State’s program was one of the best in the country, he said.

Now, it’s no longer offered.

Colleges need support and funding to reinvest in those type of degrees, he said.

Outside of training teachers, others spoke of building up the local infrastructure, including transportation, broadband connectivity and housing options, to help attract people to the region.

Those are the kind of measures that would-be employees use to rank and decide on whether to relocate for a job, said Richard Randall, manufacturing operations manager at Markem-Imaje in Keene.

The company is looking to hire innovative talent, and that often requires looking outside of the region, which is sometimes a tough sell.

Heidi Stanclift, on the other hand, owns a small web development company, and she said her biggest challenge is finding talent right out of college. In the rapidly changing web development industry, fresh graduates come to her five to seven years behind the times, she said.

And when Stanclift does hire employees, the amount she can afford to pay them isn’t even a living wage, with the amount of student loan the young college graduates have.

That means most of her employees, even those working full time, have to find second jobs, and they’re run down and worn out.

Stanclift wasn’t the only one to bring up the cost of college.

“We have to invest in what will be our future,” said Vic Kissel, senior manufacturing manager at Maxcess International in Keene. “And we’re not doing that. There’s not enough incentives for college, given the cost.”

New Hampshire is the second-worst in the country in terms of average college debt. The outlook isn’t much better at the community college level, where New Hampshire’s tuition ranks among the most expensive, Robert Stillings, of River Valley, said.

Participants suggested researching a way to forgive student loan debt of graduates who work for small businesses or go into high-demand fields.

Lack of capital for businesses also halts growth, and so opening up access to small business loans would help produce a better business environment, said Rich Grogan, regional manager of the N.H. Small Business Development Center.

And offering financial incentives to businesses or wages to students for work experience while they’re still in school would help build up what Keene State knows is a valuable bridge, said Jay V. Kahn, the college’s vice president for finance and planning.

Another challenge facing Keene State is the downshifting of costs from the federal government, he said. Keene State hosts the region’s small business development center and a regional OSHA Training Institute Education Center, which serves all of New England.

Both centers are supported with federal grants that have been chipped away recently, especially with sequestration cuts, Kahn said. Keene State has been forced to push the maintenance costs of the those programs down to tuition-paying students, he said.

Kuster’s visit was part of her push for her “Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Agenda,” which calls for a variety of initiatives and legislation she says will strengthen the workforce, such as the Workforce Development Investment Act. That law would provide tax credits to employers that partner with colleges to improve workforce training.

Jobs and the economy are the most important issues facing the country, she said.

“We have lots of other issues, but they all seem to come back to that.”

Kaitlin Mulhere can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or kmulhere@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @KMulhereKS.