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State Increases Efforts to Close Workforce Gap
Published Monday, September 11, 2017

The top degrees issued by the state’s higher education institutions largely match the labor market’s projected top jobs in fields such as health, business management and information technology, but the number of graduates earning those degrees don’t meet the workforce need.

“The feedback we get, both from students who do alumni surveys and from employers directly, is that we do an excellent job of preparing [students] but that we don’t prepare enough of them,” says Todd Leach, chancellor for the University System of NH. The shortfall has led to some unprecedented partnerships and coalitions among industries, educational institutions and nonprofits to keep the state’s economic engine on track. “I’ve never seen this kind of business, education and public policy collaboration in such a great way in all my time here, and I’ve been in the state 40 years,” says Edward MacKay, director of the NH Division of Higher Education. Among the challenges are:

A shrinking workforce. The state’s population is the fourth oldest nationally. As more baby boomers retire, K-12 school enrollment has declined for the past decade. This means fewer potential workers, according to a 2016 NH Department of Education report on the status of higher education in the state.

A “brain drain.” Fewer than half of NH high school graduates who go on to college do so in-state, and only about half of the state’s college graduates remain in NH, according to Stay Work Play NH.

From left: Beth San Soucie, program manager; Kate Luczko, former president & CEO; and Ariel Kapteyn, administrator for Stay Work Play. Courtesy photo.

An education gap. By 2025, 65 percent of the state’s workforce will need to have attained high-quality, post-secondary credentials to sustain NH’s economy, according to the NH Coalition for Business and Education. Today, only about 51 percent of working adults in the state have such degrees.

A response gap. Because workforce needs can change quickly depending on market demand, some college programs may not be as marketable by the time a student completes them, making job matching “a moving target,” according to Bruce DeMay, director of the state’s Economic & Labor Market Information Bureau.

The problem is less severe at community colleges, which offer two-year degrees and shorter, non-degree certificate courses in occupations requiring less education. “We’re more agile, more focused on the alignment of education with the economy now and what we expect it to be,” says Ross Gittell, chancellor for the Community College System of NH. “We have certificate programs that can be as short as six weeks around a specific career. You get a credential, and that’s considered a post-secondary achievement.”

Such challenges led to the creation of the NH Coalition for Business and Education, formed in 2013 to strengthen the ties between businesses and schools, according to chair Tom Raffio, president of Northeast Delta Dental and past chair of the NH Board of Education. “Until recently, I would go to a lot of meetings with educators, and they would lament they didn’t really know what the workforce needs were for business. And I would go to meetings with business leaders, and they would say that students coming out of high school and college didn’t have the workforce skills,” says Raffio. “So I agreed to found the group with Fred Kocher [former president of the NH Tech Council] with the proviso that we would be a group of action.” The group’s ambition is to have “education-driven economic development.”

Among the initiatives supported by the group is 65x25, which aims to have 65 percent of NH’s adult population in possession of a higher education degree or high-quality credential by the year 2025. That amounts to 85,000 to 90,000 additional degree-holders, according to MacKay. “Sixty-five by 25 is going to change the trajectory of our state,” MacKay adds. “If we can attain this, the economic impact will be enormous—a $2.7 billion difference in aggregate earnings in 2025 between that and our current trajectory. It will mean lower levels of poverty, lower levels of crime.”

Getting Students on Paths Earlier
The NH Scholars Program, now in more than 70 state high schools, promotes more relevance in high school curriculums and student mentoring from the business community, with a goal of encouraging more students to pursue secondary education.

Dual and concurrent enrollment programs through NH’s Community College System and Southern NH University enable high school students to earn college and high school credits at the same time.

The Workforce Accelerator Program, launched in December by the Business and Industry Association of NH and the NH Charitable Foundation with help from Fidelity Investments, is designed to support 65x25 by helping schools better connect  with employers. The idea is to encourage collaboration among educators, businesses, nonprofits and others to identify and meet workforce needs. The object is to build career pathways whereby high school students gain workforce skills and engage in hands-on learning for credit, and college students have additional opportunities for internships.

Gittell also points to the Community College System’s Purpose First program, which seeks to have NH’s public postsecondary institutions develop strategies to help students better discern their purpose in college. “If we provide pathways, people could get more work exposure and more direction in how to place in a particular career in contrast with just a discipline-based focus,” he says.

The NH University System and Community College System’s dual admission program allows students to pay one application fee and transfer associate degree credits to a four-year college upon graduation with a GPA of 2.5 or higher. Other programs allow a community college-trained registered nurse with an associate degree to earn a bachelor of science in nursing through Granite State College at the community college rate.

The Talent Gap
Stay Work Play NH encourages young people to live and work in the state and is an offshoot of the University System of NH’s 55% Initiative, which began in 2007 with a goal of encouraging at least 55 percent of new graduates to stay in-state, instead of the then-50 percent. The University System’s research indicated that the economic impact of such a change would be $19 million annually. Stay Work Play’s website, geared to 20- to 30-year-olds, includes links to employment tools, social marketing tools and news on events.

“One of our big initiatives this year is we have a new installation going in at the rest area in Hooksett on I-93 south,” says Kate Luczko, former president and CEO of Stay Work Play. “It’s a portal to come stay, work, play, to attract young people to the state.” The group also holds fairs and other events at NH high schools and colleges and promotes companies that agree to hire new or recent grads or pay off a portion of their student debt.

Expanding High-Demand Programs
MacKay points out that both Keene State College and Plymouth State University have created nursing degree programs in the last few years to meet projected needs. The number of job openings for registered nurses is projected to grow by 15.4 percent by 2024, according to the NH Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

Both Keene State College, left, and Plymouth State University, right, have created nursing degree programs in the last few years to meet projected needs. Courtesy photos.

Tech and manufacturing firms have long complained about the dearth of engineers. Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering is planning a $200-million-plus expansion that will include a new 180,000-square-foot building that will roughly double the engineering footprint at the school.

Training Programs
Training programs often involve partnerships between businesses and community colleges or technical schools.

For example, the NH Sector Partnership Initiative is a statewide program to help businesses in certain industries address their workforce needs while helping workers prepare for and advance in those areas. The initiative is focusing on manufacturing, hospitality, health care and information technology. Participating businesses in each sector share their hiring, training and retention needs, then work with education and other partners to develop training programs and other services to meet the needs.

Hypertherm, a Hanover-based manufacturer of cutting products, started its own Hypertherm Technical Training Institute in 2007 when it found that educational institutions couldn’t meet its projected need for 60 new CNC (computer numeric controlled) machinists a year for at least three years, according to Tim Renner, a program manager at the institute. Working with Vermont HITEC, a nonprofit training group, the institute condenses two college semesters’ worth of training into nine weeks to produce workers with the skills the company needs. Some 500 people have been through the program—all of them guaranteed a job and paid full wages while training. “The traditional college model cannot respond quickly enough,” says Renner, who emphasized he was speaking for himself and not Hypertherm. “When we need people, we need people.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock, NH’s second largest employer after state government, developed an in-house program for medical assistants and pharmacy technicians when the traditional talent pipeline wasn’t supplying enough. A medical assistant student goes through a nine to 11-week intensive program, earning college credits, then graduates to a 2,000-hour apprenticeship for additional credits.

“We are like a fish hatchery making sure New Hampshire talent rivers are stocked,” says Sarah Currier, Dartmouth-Hitchcock director of workforce development. “We’re reaching down to high schools and community colleges, or unemployed and underemployed, and saying, ‘we can help you step into a career path and link you with more training and educational opportunities.’” About 180 people have gone through the program. All those who went through the program were  guaranteed a job at Dartmouth when they finished.

Other companies, including Hitchiner Manufacturing in Milford, have launched similar condensed, in-house programs. Fidelity Investments has a new program to assist with student loan repayment. Fidelity employees who have been with the company for six months or more can qualify to receive $2,000 a year toward their student loans up to a maximum of $10,000.

DeMay cautions that degrees with no apparent connection to workforce needs may nevertheless have value when graduates look for work. “With a lot of business-related occupations, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much what the degree is, but that the student is being trained in analytical thinking. So in that sense, the valuable degrees for a lot of businesses don’t necessarily map into a specific occupation,” he says. “One degree could map to a lot of different occupations.”

Challenges Remain
Even with all these programs in place, finding qualified workers is still tough for many businesses.

“The health care field continues to be short of licensed [workers] even though there’s been an expansion in the number of programs offered and the number of graduates,” says DeMay. “It’s a moving target that certain areas will face shortages.

Computer-related degrees are growing and [the] number of graduates is growing, but the whole tech industry really relies on a national talent pool.”

Still, progress has been made, says Raffio. “There’s more to come, of course. The overarching measure of success is 65x25. To do that in the next eight years will really indicate we’ve reached our goal,” he says.

Suzanne Foster, vice president and general manager at Medtronic in Portsmouth, summed up the situation in a workforce development video produced for the University System of NH. “The quality of the students that have come out of the university system is excellent,” she says. “We just need more of them.”

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