N.H. Economic Development chief told lack of skilled labor holding back manufacturing job growth

NORTHFIELD — When Jeff Rose, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, visited a handful of manufacturing firms in the Lakes Region yesterday he heard again and again that their growth and prosperity required the development of a skilled workforce.

"The shortage of skilled workers played like a broken record at each of our stops," said State Senator Andrew Hosmer (D-Laconia), who hosted the tour, together with Carmen Lorentz, executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council. "Everywhere we went we heard business is good, but that finding qualified employees and applicants remains a real challenge."

Lakes Region Community College, where numbers enrolled in the degree and certificate programs in advanced manufacturing is rising, was the first stop, followed by visits to New Hampshire Ball Bearing, Mainstay Technologies, Eptam Plastics and Titeflex Aerospace.

At Eptam Plastics, President Jeff Hollinger told Rose that sales are running 7 percent ahead of last year and profitability is growing at an even faster pace. The company is currently weighing an opportunity to add $7 million or $8 million in new business, he said, adding that one of the considerations is "finding the people we need."

In 2003, when Eptam moved from Gilford to its 60,000-square foot facility at Riverside Business Park, some 70 employees were on the payroll working two shifts and this year 117 employees are working three shifts. Hollinger said that although the payroll has grown every year, if he could hire 10 skilled employees the consequent growth in business would generate another 10 jobs within a year.

Hollinger rejected the notion that the manufacturing sector is in decline. The cost models for outsourcing have proved mistaken and issues of quality have arisen, he said

Hollinger, who serves on the advisory board of Lakes Region Community College, noted that there has been renewed interest in manufacturing in the last two years. He stressed the importance of making young people — and their parents — aware of the opportunities and rewards of pursuing a career in manufacturing. He said that at Eptam the lowest hourly wage is $12 per hour while machinists earn "in the mid-twenties (per hour) or more." All employees receive a full range of benefits, including health, life, dental and long and short-term disability insurance. The company also invests in the training and education of its employees by providing tuition reimbursement.

Hosmer said that earlier in the day, Gary Groleau of New Hampshire Ball Bearing described the dearth of qualified employees as "critical" and heard much the same from Graham Thomson, general manager at Titeflex. Unlike Eptam, which is a local firm, other manufacturers in the region are affiliates of national and global corporations, which operate in myriad locations. "We must give them a reason to stay here and grow here," Hosmer said.

When Rose, who himself spent ten years in manufacturing industry with BAE Systems, a maker of electronic systems for defense, security and aerospace applications, asked what the state was doing well, Hollinger mentioned the tax credit for investment in research and development. He said that Eptam may spend $100,000 or $200,000 to develop develop a product and manufacturing process to expand its market and welcomed the Legislature's decision to double the credit.

"What can we do better? Rose asked. "Promote manufacturing in the schools and colleges," Hollinger replied without hesitation.

CAPTION: Jeff Hollinger (right), president of Eptam Plastics, explains the design and production of an artificial body part fashioned of machined plastic, to Jeff Rose (second from left), commissioner of Resources and Economic Development. Christopher Burley (far left), machined the product while to Rose's right State Senator Andrew Hosmer, Deb Avery of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, and Carmen Lorentz, executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council accompanied Rose on his visits to manufacturers in the Lakes Region. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Michael Kitch)