A few things NH can do to help boost employment
As originally appearing in The Union Leader

By James T. Brett & Ross Gitell

At the recent New England Economic Partnership conference, economists from around the region discussed the outlook for this part of the country. As it has been for the last several years, the economic forecast was tempered: the region is expected to experience slow growth and slow recovery over the next four years.

During the recession, New England lost a total of 5 percent of its jobs, and the region as a whole is unlikely to return to pre-recession employment levels until well into 2015.

Among the six states, New Hampshire not only fared well compared to the rest of the region during the recession, but actually outperformed most of the nation. Given the shallower trough that New Hampshire experienced, the rebound has been steady but slow. In previous periods of economic recovery, New Hampshire’s rate of job growth often significantly outpaced the nation and the other New England states. In this recovery, the rate of growth will be closer to the rest of the region.

In a reversal of long-term population trends in New Hampshire, the state experienced a net domestic out-migration over the last few years. This has long-term implications for New Hampshire’s economic growth as people moving into New Hampshire have typically provided a constantly refreshing, highly educated workforce.

Since the beginning of the recession, New England has fared better than other regions. The region’s overall unemployment rate has remained below the national average and is expected to remain so for the next three years. The weakness in our housing markets, while significant, does not touch the crippling declines seen in other regions. However, job growth in New England remains weak and there is significant uncertainty in the regional economic outlook.

Much of this uncertainty derives from external factors. New England’s prosperity is obviously intertwined with the rest of the nation. To the degree the national picture dims, our region is likely to mirror those developments. And, perhaps to a greater degree than other parts of the country, Europe’s influence is significant — the European Union has traditionally been an important trade partner and investor for New England.

Given the factors we cannot influence or control, it is important that we look at those elements in the economic mix that we can address. In any recession, there is dislocation and then realignment of the labor market with the emerging employment opportunities. In this recession, we see a significant disconnect between the types of new jobs that are developing and the skills that the unemployed or underemployed may bring to these opportunities.

Around New England, for a diverse range of industries, employers have job openings — but simply cannot find qualified employees to fill them.

Among the top sectors for growth are computer and mathematical occupations, along with health care support occupations. In each of these sectors, jobs are emerging that require highly skilled labor — and often different skills than in past decades. Our economy is shifting more and more toward those occupations which require science, math, engineering and technology, the so-called STEM fields, and our workforce is unable to keep pace. We need to redouble our efforts in educational reform to help expose students to STEM skills early and often, and ensure that they arrive in the workforce equipped with the advanced skills needed.

There is also a “skills gap” for employers needing workers with specific job skills, such as advanced manufacturing techniques. Precision manufacturing technology becomes more sophisticated every day, and so do the skills needed to work in this sector. We need to do more to equip the existing labor force and the next generation of workers with sophisticated mid-level skills needed in the emerging manufacturing sector.

Since 1990, the number of workers with any postsecondary education has been growing more slowly that in other parts of the country. In particular, the region faces a shortage of workers with education beyond a high school diploma, but short of a bachelor’s degree. Many of the jobs in growing sectors, such as health care, will require just this mix — some 40 percent of future job openings. It is vital that New England educational institutions recognize this and align their offerings accordingly.

Skilled workers are the catalyst to transform New England’s long-term economic prospects. Our region’s economic recovery will depend in large measure on the alignment between the skills of available workers and the emerging job opportunities. With slow growth projected for the next few years, and significant external economic risks we cannot control, enhancing the skills of our labor force will pay huge dividends.

James T. Brett is the President and CEO of The New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business association. Ross Gittell is the vice president and forecast manager of NEEP and chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire.

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