Investing in Education to Boost the New Hampshire Economy

The country and our state are still reeling from the economic recession. Our economy in New Hampshire is recovering more slowly from this recession than it has from past recessions. New Hampshire has usually been a leader coming out of past recessions, and this time, job growth and the recovery of jobs lost is slower that in the past. In fact, New Hampshire is now ranked 42nd out of 50 states over the last year in job growth. That is not where we want to be. How can we change that?

First, analyzing the problem, it appears that there are job openings, and there would be more, if New Hampshire had the workers skilled in the fields where the jobs are. There are some startling facts:

• The hires-to-openings ratio is the lowest of all regions in the Northeast, implying a mismatch between openings and the workers to fill them;

• National and NH surveys of employers indicate that about 40% of college graduates available to employers do not possess the needed applied skills to fill the job openings those employers have now, and

• About one third of manufacturing companies are suffering from a shortage of workers with the skills the companies need.

The solution: invest in the means to produce those workers with the skills needed, to fill the job openings in New Hampshire and to create an atmosphere in which employers will want to bring their businesses to New Hampshire, because of our excellent labor pool and our robust educational offerings.

Realigning all levels of New Hampshire’s educational system to better meet the needs of employers, both current and future, will require work at all levels. First, let’s start with children. Really small children. We all know how much children grow and change in the first few years of life. Children who do not meet developmental milestones in the first year or two of life will be behind for a lifetime if they don’t start receiving the early intervention services to help them make all the gains they can. If our future workers can’t acquire the skills they need, our state economy will suffer.

My husband and I are the proud parents of three children. Our youngest had not spoken a word by age one nor rolled over on her own. After evaluation by her pediatrician and a referral to the Richie McFarland Children’s Center, she received speech, physical and occupational therapies as a preschooler. When she arrived in kindergarten, it wasn’t clear she would learn to read. Fortunately for our family, we live in a community with strong elementary schools, with a particular focus on literacy. By the end of her first grade, our daughter was reading at a level a full year ahead of her class, and she has never stopped reading. About that need for physical therapy? Our daughter, now fourteen, can burn up any ski slope, rides horses, swims and runs for her middle school cross country team. Her physical skills would not have developed if not for that early intervention.

Putting sustained resources into the very early years is extremely important. Janet Guen, Senior Director of Resource Development for the United Way for the Greater Seacoast has said that a dollar spent in the early childhood years saves fourteen dollars the public would need to spend later on, for high costs such as special education and, sadly, sometimes jail. This is why our United Way in the Seacoast area has a focus on getting kids identified as needing support to succeed in school ready for kindergarten, before they even arrive at the school house door, with their “K-Ready Kids” initiative. This program provides kids with backpacks full of books and supplies for school, each item specifically targeting the skills children need to succeed in school and, most important, engaging parents in supporting their children in school, through their school years.

All right, we have looked at examples of ways to get children off to a good start from birth through elementary school, with excellent early intervention for kids who need it, at places like Richie McFarland Children’s Center; excellent supports to get children ready to succeed in school and continued support for them in school, such as the “K-Ready Kids” initiative of the United Way of the Greater Seacoast, and outstanding public school, such as the ones my children were fortunate to attend. How do we produce the engineers and computer programmers that employers in New Hampshire are desperate to hire?

Let’s take a look at the other end of the educational pipeline. A place to start is obviously the University of New Hampshire, which, by reputation, has strong programs, particularly in engineering. Those strong programs are not strong enough to produce the workers we need. Much is being made of enhancing the STEM fields in education. This is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. An obvious place for the Legislature to increase funding to UNH is in those departments. The best bang for our tax dollars will come if the University enhances its partnerships with businesses, particularly manufacturers, that are located in NH and may want to locate here in the future. Although we don’t always appreciate our neighbors to the South, New Hampshire is fortunate to be close to the Silicon Valley of the East, the 495 belt around Boston and the start-ups in that city and neighboring Cambridge. Reaching out to those entrepreneurs and learning what skills they need for their workers, would position New Hampshire to lead the nation in tailoring our higher education to the needs of employers, creating a strong economy in this state. We the taxpayers will reap the benefits of supporting stronger STEM programs at in New Hampshire’s University system.

Another place to look is the Community College system. Projections show that the largest group of job opportunities for the next ten years will be in so-called “middle-skilled” level jobs, i.e. those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a Bachelor’s degree. And who can train the workers to fill those jobs? The Community Colleges. Additionally, workers will need to learn new skills during their work lives, and, again, the Community College system can meet that need.

Finally, one of the most effective places to hone students’ skills and prepare them for the jobs employers need filled now are the career and technical schools throughout our state. If you think “vocational school” was some lesser place for kids to go when you were in high school, you really need to meet the current generation of students and programs at these schools now. As an example, the Seacoast School of Technology, located in Exeter but serving students throughout the region, is populated with excited students and incredible staff, giving them hands-on skills in the areas of work that may let them make a good living on graduation from high school or prepare them for Associate’s degree programs at a Community Colleges or, for some students, get them into highly competitive programs such as the pre-veterinary program at Cornell University. With Pre-Engineering, Plant and Animal Science, and culinary arts, this isn’t your granddaddy’s “voke” school. Incidentally, this school is one of the most adept at learning what employers want in their workers, through the extensive internship programs it has developed with employers in the area.

So what is the take-away? If we want to enjoy a stronger economy in New Hampshire, we need to support the programs that will help every child in New Hampshire reach his or her full potential, so that those future workers can contribute their work skills to the economy, and we need to support the programs that will work with employers to design the programs to train the workers to fill the jobs that are going unfilled now. How? Support great non-profits such as Richie McFarland and the United Way of the Greater Seacoast. Support your public schools, with your tax dollars; volunteer your time on school boards and committees. And, if you are an employer, reach out to your local career and technical school, community college or university and let them know what you want and what you can do to help, whether that is offering advice or providing an internship. With all of our support, New Hampshire will have a brighter economic future.