Published Date Written by Roger AmsdenLACONIA — Governor Maggie Hassan touted the virtues of advanced manufacturing yesterday as she visited New Hampshire Ball Bearings' Astro Division as part of her "Innovate NH" tour, which features stops at cutting edge businesses across the Granite State.
''When I tell high school students what starting salaries are in high tech manufacturing they're amazed,'' said Hassan, who said that focusing on helping people develop skills for jobs in an innovative economy is her major priority as governor.
Manufacturing accounts for $18.5-billion in gross state product, making it the single largest sector of New Hampshire's economy (19-percent), according to a study released in 2011 by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.
That study also showed that manufacturers employ 77,000 people in the state and pay out $6.4 billion in wages and benefits each year.
But an aging workforce and the lack of skilled workers to take their place has produced a labor shortage in the state, which mirrors national tends according to Gary Groleau, manager of Labor Relations and Organizational Development for NHBB.
Groleau says that there are 400,000 skilled manufacturing job vacancies nationally, 1,200 of which are in New Hampshire, even though the state has lost 35,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000.
''We're the fourth oldest state in the country with an average age of 40.4 years. Only Maine, Vermont and West Virginia are older,'' says Groleau, who said that the state has lost 35,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000.
That same age dynamic is in play at NHBB, a leading manufacturer of precision bearings and complex bearing assemblies for the aerospace, defense, medical, dental, and high-technology markets, according to Groleau.
He says that the average age of workers at the plant is 49 for those in the office and 48 for those in production, with 37 workers in the 61-71 age bracket and 52 in the 55-60 age bracket, which means that a significant number will be retiring in the near future.
''We have 15 production worker vacancies right now and in some cases those jobs have nearly six figure salaries along with benefits,'' says Groleau.
He said that NHBB has partnered with higher education institutions, including Lakes Region Community College, to develop the workforce training programs needed to fill jobs at the company.
Groleau, who is also a member of the N.H. Board of Education, says that there are some very positive developments at the local level, including what he said is the extraordinary effort underway in the $16.8 million complete overhaul of the Huot Regional Technical Education Center in Laconia, which is strengthening the pre-engineering and manufacturing programs there.
He's a member of an advisory committee working with Lakes Region Community College to develop an advanced manufacturing program which will help provide workers with the skills needed to work with the sophisticated equipment high tech industries use.
Tom Goulette, academic affairs vice president at LRCC, says the college has received a three-year $979,000 grant to develop an advanced manufacturing program. The grant is part of nearly $20-million federal grant received by the state last year as part of a national $500-million program for community colleges.
Hassan says that her budget proposal is designed to advance her "Innovate NH" jobs plan and aims to build a strong, highly skilled workforce that will attract innovative businesses and good jobs. She said her proposal substantially restores cuts made to New Hampshire's public universities and community colleges in exchange for freezing in-state tuition for the next two years in order to make higher education more affordable and accessible.
She also supports doubling the research and development tax credit from $1 million to $2 million a year in order to support innovation by both existing companies and new start-up firms.
NHBB employs nearly 500 people at its Astro Division in Laconia and another 700 in Peterborough and has a $52 million payroll in the state, according to Rich Bardellini, NHBB's vice president for manufacturing, who said that since NHBB was acquired by the international firm Minebea in 1985 the company, the world's largest producer on miniature ball bearings, has invested $63 million in its Laconia plant.
Bardellini said that the company enjoyed its best year ever in 2012 and continues to invest in Laconia, where its' new product development center recently hired five research and development engineers, two of whom are PhD's, and applied for three patents last year as a result of its research.
He said that 97 percent of the Astro Division's products are used by the defense and aerospace industries and that the company is deeply concerned over automatic federal budget cuts which will take place if the budget sequestration measure takes effect.
CAPTION: Governor Maggie Hassan talks about advanced manufacturing during a Thursday visit to New Hampshire Ball Bearings' Astro Division as part of her "Innovate NH" tour. With her are Scott Davis of the Huot Technical Center, left, and Richard Bardellini, vice president of Manufacturing for NHBB, and Gary Groleau, manager of Labor Relations and Organizational Development for NHBB. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)