LACONIA — The paucity of skilled employees, together with the high cost of health care and energy, were the dominant themes when some 20 business executives and public officials from the Lakes Region joined Governor Maggie Hassan for a business roundtable hosted by Lakes Region Community College yesterday.
The governor opened the meeting by remarking on the appointment of Carmen Lorentz, the executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council, as director of the Division of Economic Development, noting that for want of funding interim directors had filled the position for the past five years.
Jeff Rose, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, welcomed Lorentz aboard, noting that he first met her at a business roundtable at the college a year ago.
Hassan reviewed a number of initiatives to strengthen the economy that were taken in the 2014-2015 biennial budget, including the restoration of funding for both the university and community college system as well as increased appropriations for international trade assistance and travel and tourism.
The capital, she said, provided funds for the "business one-stop" project, which will enable new and expanding firms to navigate the state's regulatory, permitting and tax requirements from a single website. In addition, Hassan said that the research and development tax credit was doubled and, for the first time, made a permanent provision of the business tax code.
When the discussion began Tyler Stone of Webster Valve, Inc. of Franklin at once spoke of the challenge of attracting employees with aptitude and skills manufacturers require, noting that recruitment has dwindled over the 15 years since Franklin High School eliminated "shop".
Dave Warrender, the director of the Huot Regional Technical Education Center at Laconia High School, said that enrollment in the manufacturing program has grown 20 percent, but acknowledged that it was difficult to accommodate students from Franklin because of the travel time. He suggested that if students interested in pursuing the program were enlisted earlier, in the lower grades, they could plan their curriculum to complete the program in their junior and senior years.
Jim Aberg of the Franklin Business and Industrial Corporation said that more must be done to dispel misconceptions that jobs in manufacturing are marked by repetitive work at low ages in dreary conditions. Advanced manufacturing, he said, employs sophisticated skills in clean facilities while paying high wages and providing a career path. However, at the same time he conceded that many workers are not "showing up on time and passing the pee test."
The governor recognized that substance abuse poses a challenge for many employers.
Rose said that his agency offers a "work ready program" designed to instill behaviors appropriate and expected in a variety of different work places.
With much of the conversation centered on manufacturing, Alex Ray of the Common Man Family of Restaurants, said he felt like "a fish out of water." He stressed that while the hospitality sector was often the first workplace for young people it also provided a variety of genuine career opportunities.
Rusty McLear of Hampshire Hospitality Holdings, noted that an internship program introduced in Meredith. where the Greater Meredith Program partnered with Inter-Lakes High School, has enrolled 61 interns.
Switching gears, the mayor of Laconia, Ed Engler, turned the discussion to health care. He said that high and rising cost of health insurance was a "drag on wages and salaries" and asked if employers should consider significantly increasing compensation, but no longer providing health insurance and instead referring employees to the exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act.
Senator Andrew Hosmer of Laconia, the general manager of AutoServ, expressed concern that some employees, especially younger workers, would not apply their increased earning to purchasing health insurance. At the same time, he said that benefits were an important means of recruiting employees that firms would be reluctant to relinquish.
Andrew Curland of Vitex Extrusion of Franklin, a manufacturer with 100 employees, said that if he was starting afresh, he would not open a business in New Hampshire, citing the high cost of energy, which is twice that of New York, and health insurance. Nevertheless, he counted the challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified employees as "the biggest impediment to growth."
Barry Wilk of New Hampshire Ball Bearing agreed that energy and health care costs are high and anticipated that they would remain high relative to those in other states. Consequently, he said that developing and training "an agile and skilled workforce" was particularly important for New Hampshire firms as a means of offsetting a share of those costs over which they have little control.