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How Rural NH Competes for Young Talent
Published Friday, August 18, 2017

The Rapid Insight team at the Technology Village Business Resource Center in Conway. Courtesy of MVEC.

For the past several years, businesses across the Granite State have been asking the same question: where’s all the young talent? It’s a question they will continue to ponder for years to come. A 2016 report from the NH Office of Energy and Planning (OEP) found that by 2040, “every New Hampshire county is projected to experience natural decline—an excess of deaths over births.” And the number of young people in NH is projected to dwindle as well. The report estimates the portion of the population that is between the ages of 20 and 29 will decrease by 6 percent between 2010 and 2040.

This trend becomes particularly significant at the county level. Besides Grafton and Strafford Counties—which are projected to increase the number of 20-year-olds by 11 and 4 percent, respectively—every other NH county is expected to lose members of this demographic, ranging from a 6 percent decline in Merrimack County to a 33 percent drop in Coos County by 2040.

Cities like Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth—hubs for industry and young professionals—are all in counties expected to experience a dip in younger workers. It may be that projected declines in those counties would be steeper if not for those urban centers. But when it comes to the state’s rural communities, data suggests 20-somethings are leaving in droves.

Reverberations of the Great Recession
From an economic standpoint, the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, is becoming a distant memory as many businesses are growing and startups emerge. But demographers say we continue to feel its effects.

“Big urban cores like Boston and Chicago tended to receive significant inflows of people in their 20s who are attracted by social and economic opportunities, and when they reached their 30s, they typically began to shift to suburbs to start families,” says Kenneth Johnson, professor of sociology and senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at University of NH in Durham. “New Hampshire has done pretty well at attracting this suburban outflow to the state, as we’ve had a net positive migration of people in their early 30s.” But the economic effect of the Great Recession significantly changed migration rates nationwide. In 2016, Johnson and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a study of all U.S. counties that found migration slowed during the recession. In all, they found that 75 percent of counties experienced migration loss or less migration gain during the recession than before. Johnson says the recession particularly affected migration patterns of those in their 20s.

It slowed their traditional movements to urban areas in their younger years and to suburbs in their 30s.

Millennials aren’t just putting off white picket fences in the suburbs. A 2016 report from Johnson found that “more than 3.4 million fewer babies were born in the U.S. between 2008 and 2015 than would have been expected if pre-recession fertility rates had been sustained,” with 2015 still having “the lowest general fertility rate on record.”

These statistics have been particularly significant among women age 20 to 29, who had “19 percent fewer babies in 2015 than would have been expected had the fertility levels of 2007 been sustained,” the greatest deficit among all age brackets of women in the study.

“In terms of fertility rates, we haven’t seen an end to the Great Recession,” says Johnson. “Fertility rates are still considerably lower than pre-recession levels, especially for women in their 20s.”

Johnson says millennials have been slower to marry and have children, which may also be contributing to the generation’s slow outflow to suburban areas. This pattern presents a challenge for NH, particularly when coupled with the OEP’s projection of deaths outpacing births and fewer people in their 20s calling the state home.

Urban NH’s Allure for Millennials
Overall, Johnson says the millennial share of the state’s population averages 10.7 percent in rural areas and about 12 percent in urban areas. Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth all heavily contribute to urban NH’s popularity for millennials, with the generation’s share of the population jumping to 15 percent in Nashua, 16 percent in Manchester and 25 percent in Portsmouth.

Yet, it’s Portsmouth’s neighbor to the north that’s quietly becoming Southern NH’s millennial haven. Strafford County is one of only two counties projected to increase its population of 20-year-olds in the next few decades, despite being dwarfed in size and population by the state’s other urban counties. “We’re a bit of an anomaly,” says Dennis McCann, executive director of Strafford Economic Development Corporation in Dover. “We’re one of the only parts of the state that’s retaining and attracting young [people].”

And it's not UNH that's acting as the county’s primary millennial magnet. The bulk of NH’s college students attend school in Hillsborough and Merrimack counties, which house 15 of NH’s 26 colleges and universities. “As the father of three UNH alums, I had a front row seat for what happened with them and their friends after graduation,” says McCann, explaining they left NH to pursue job opportunities in other states. “While UNH is certainly ‘a’ driver for bringing young people to the area, it’s definitely not ‘the’ main driver.”

McCann says Strafford County’s easy access to cultural amenities, relatively affordable housing, access to public transportation (including passenger rail service, regular commuter bus service to Boston and New York as well as local bus service), availability of quality jobs and strong entrepreneurial environment have been the major factors for its growing young professional population. “People like to live in more affordable, low density areas like Barrington, Farmington, Middleton and New Durham that are easily commutable to the county’s employment centers of Dover, Durham and Rochester,” he says.

Dover in particular has become a comparable, affordable alternative to Portsmouth. Since the first millennials were born in the late 1980s up until 2015, Dover’s population grew roughly 20 percent to 30,534, while Portsmouth’s population dropped by 18 percent, according to NH Employment Security. Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dover costs $1,120 versus $1,320 in Portsmouth, according to Sperling’s Best Places.

Those trends don’t just include young people, nor do they prove a mass millennial exodus from Portsmouth to Dover. But McCann says Dover’s cultural offerings, as well as the area’s quality of life and proximity to Seacoast hubs, have helped Strafford County succeed at attracting and retaining young professionals.

As to why, McCann points to attractions like Dover’s ample downtown dining and live music; co-ops and farmer’s markets like Butternut Farm in Farmington and Wentworth Greenhouses in Rollinsford; and its bustling craft beer culture, including 7th Settlement Brewery and Garrison City Beerworks in Dover, North Country Hard Cider in Rollinsford and Bad Lab Beer Co. in Somersworth.

Visitors to Butternut Farm in Farmington. Courtesy of Butternut Farm/SEDC

Dover's bustling craft beer culture includes left: Andy and Nicole Gray, owners of Garrison City Beerworks; and from right: David Boynton, and Josh Henry, founders of 7th Settlement Brewery. Courtesy of Garrison City Beerworks/SEDC and 7th Settlement/SEDC.

Young professionals are also attracted to Grafton County. According to the OEP’s report, the county’s population of 20-year-olds is projected to grow 11 percent by 2040, the highest projected growth in the state. “There are parts of Grafton County that are taking initiatives to make these areas more amenable to younger people,” says Geoffrey Sewake, field specialist at the UNH Cooperative Extension for Grafton County in North Haverhill. He says there’s been focused efforts from the business community toward appealing to a younger demographic, particularly in Littleton. The town has taken on a youthful feel over the past decade that most people might not associate with rural NH, according to Sewake, including urban-style attractions like M-ZO Tea & Co., Schilling Beer Co. and a DIY community art space called The Loading Dock.

M-ZO Tea in Downtown Littleton. Courtesy photo.

Jessica Bunker, executive director of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce, says the town has been lucky to have a mix of long-standing businesses and young entrepreneurs. She says Littleton's transformation is the result of concentrated efforts from organizations like the chamber, Littleton Main Street and Littleton Industrial Development Corp., all of whom have focused on a holistic approach.

“There's a complex suite of issues that needs to be addressed in order to make the region viable to Millennials,” says Bunker. “It's not necessarily just focusing on having jobs or workforce housing or a sense of community; you have to address all three.” Sewake agrees this proactive approach could help NH communities attract young professionals. “I would advocate that if we’re interested in appealing to a younger demographic, a lot of it comes down to taking the bull by the horns and encouraging our communities and businesses to take initiative and reach out to young people,” he says.

An Aging North Country
The shortage of young professionals becomes more dire the more rural and further north you go. Coos County is projected to experience the biggest drop at 33 percent, due largely to young people’s perception of few opportunities in these rural areas.

Eleanor Jaffee is the evaluation program director at UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy and program manager of the Coos Youth Study, a 10-year research project, launched in 2008, to track the migration patterns of and perception of professional and educational opportunities  among the classes of 2009 and 2013 at schools in the county.

Since the study began, there have been approximately 800 participants, and an initial 2012 report about the Class of 2009 indicates area youth are conflicted. Jaffee says respondents value the community they have in the North Country, as 93 percent rank living close to family as highly or moderately important. Conversely, 76 percent of respondents consider leaving Coos County as highly or moderately important, which Jaffee says is influenced by a sense that success lays elsewhere.

“A lack of opportunities for jobs and career development seems to be the driving force for students leaving,” says Jaffee. “A lot of them appreciate the area’s natural beauty and belonging to a tight-knit community, but they feel that if they want to [pursue educational opportunities] and start their career, they have to leave.”

This perception has some merit. White Mountains Community College in Berlin is the only higher education option in Coos County, and the nearest bachelor’s degree programs are at Plymouth State University, Lyndon State College in Vermont and University of Maine at Farmington—all about a two-hour drive out of the county or state.

While Carroll County has better access to local higher education, its projected 22 percent drop in 20-year-olds plays to concerns about sparse career opportunities in the area. Whether fair or not, NH’s White Mountains and beyond have been typecast as having a primarily tourism-driven economy, including industries which may not lend themselves to millennial interests or career goals. “With this being such a seasonal area, the issue employers are having is finding enough people who are available to work the positions they need filled,” says Denise Roy-Palmer, executive director of Wentworth Economic Development Corporation in Wolfeboro.

While finding young talent and workers in general is certainly an issue affecting employers across NH, urban areas are better equipped to address it. “Rural areas tend to have more difficulty with hiring, mainly because we don’t have the same population or as many job opportunities as the southern half of the state,” says Jac Cuddy, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Economic Council (MWVEC) in Conway.

Investing in Rural NH
To address this issue, MWVEC attempts to engage with young professionals early and often. “The more ties they have to the area, the stronger our chance of keeping them around,” says Cuddy. “What we’re trying to do up here is target our 45 and under population and get them to be more involved in the community and find opportunities in the business community.”

A main component of MWVEC’s efforts is engaging with high school students directly. So far, MWVEC has organized career seminars with area employers at Kennett High School in North Conway and Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, which together serve 15  communities. MWVEC also received grants through the Live Free and Start initiative that are used to provide paid internships to high school and college students at businesses in the local incubator.

Katelyn Robinson, project manager at Northern Community Investment Corporation in Lancaster and Vermont, has been overseeing similar efforts at the Southern Coos-Littleton Area Partnership, a collaborative economic development program of 15 towns in southern Coos County and northern Grafton County. Robinson is reaching out to area high schools— including Groveton High School, Lisbon Regional High School, Littleton High School, Profile Junior/Senior High School in Bethlehem and White Mountains Regional High School in Whitefield—to explore internship opportunities for students in the region.

A CNC machine being delivered to Littleton High School where both students and adults have the opportunity to learn how to operate the machines. Courtesy of Northern Community Investment Corporation.

One of the partnership’s goals is to persuade young people to stay by introducing them to career opportunities in the area, which Robinson says range from architecture to farming to machining. Part of that is ensuring employers have the resources they need to make these internships work.

Heather Phillips connects high schools with the businesses in the Mt. Washington Valley area as program coordinator of the Mt. Washington Valley Regional Collaboration, a Conway-based partnership formed by the Mt. Washington Valley (MWV) Housing Coalition, MWV Economic Council and MWV  Health Coalition to promote economic development in rural areas. She says attracting youth talent is a top concern for local businesses, particularly in an area with an older than average population.

Members of the Mt. Washington Valley Regional Collaboration include, from left: Greydon Turner of MWV Economic Council and Pinkham Real Estate; Anna DeMarco of Anna DeMarco Photography; Janelle Sherburne; Heather Phillips, MWV Regional Collaboration program coordinator; Staci Burns,  of Flatbread’s North Conway and MWV Economic Council. Courtesy photo.

Part of this involves presenting students with options they may not have been exposed to, such as entering trade occupations like plumbing and welding. Phillips will be organizing one-on-one student workshops with local workers and business owners in the trades to talk about their jobs, salaries and quality of life in the region. This may highlight new avenues for high school grads who are unsure about attending college. Phillip adds that about 50 percent of college bound Mt. Washington Valley students don’t finish their degree programs.

“How many of these kids shouldn’t have even gone to college,” asks Phillips. “With the trades struggling to find young apprentices, we’re trying to provide all available options to kids who might just be going to college because they don’t know what they want to do.”

Recruiting Millennials
These organizations are also aiming to promote the region to college graduates and established young professionals. MWVEC promotes its incubator services and office space at Technology Village Business Resource Center in Conway to young entrepreneurs like Rapid Insight, a developer of predictive analytics software that employs 16 workers mostly under 40 years old, according to Cuddy.

MWVEC is also launching a “Start Tank” startup competition in September with a $25,000 grand prize. Cuddy says he hopes it will attract entrepreneurs under age 45. He adds that the prize money comes with a request for the winner to keep their business in the area.

Phillips has been coordinating forums for area young professionals to create an open dialogue to hear young professional’s perspectives on struggles facing the region. Between 15 and 20 people have attended each event, and Phillips says they’ve attracted five new members, all of whom are between 23 and 33 years old, to the Mt. Washington Valley Regional Collaboration’s advisory council. She also notes the relative popularity of remote work among attendees, as their last forum included four young professionals who live in the North Country but work from home.

Moving forward, Phillips and other development officials hope to promote the region to like-minded young professionals. Though she admits the area has its challenges, she hopes that the sense of community and quality of life will convince millennials to view the North Country as more than a tourist destination.

“The general assumption is there’s nothing in the North Country for younger generations, but there are actually plenty of employers who are looking for people,” says Robinson of the Southern Coos-Littleton Area Partnership. “What attracts people here for vacation is our natural resources. We’re aiming to change people’s perception, make them aware of our local businesses or convince them to work remotely so they might make a life for themselves up here and enjoy the landscape yearround.”

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