Louis Dow Jr. runs a great auto repair business in Portsmouth.
He’s honest, does quality work at a reasonable price and there are never any surprises. As a result his loyal customers come back year after year.
Lately, though, he’s had to turn away customers or book appointments weeks in advance because he’s been unable to hire mechanics to do the work, even though he pays $28 to $30 an hour, with benefits. “I’m baffled,” he says. “There’s no one out there to hire.”
Dow is not alone in this dilemma. Businesses large and small are facing historic difficulties filling positions. Why can’t businesses find workers? The question is simple, the answer is complex.
The New Hampshire Seacoast and Southern Maine are at near full employment. In just about every business sector there are more jobs than workers. This not only means small businesses like Dow’s Automotive have to turn away customers, but big manufacturers are scrambling to fulfill multi-million dollar contracts, hospitals can’t find nurses, builders and homeowners can’t find plumbers, electricians, HVAC repairmen and construction laborers. While small businesses tend to have roots in a local community, big businesses that employ hundreds of people can move to other states that can provide the workers they need.
The labor shortage starts with demographics. New Hampshire has the second oldest median age in the nation; only Maine is grayer, with median ages of 43 and 44.6, respectively. Deaths are outpacing births in most counties and in-migration from other states is anemic. In fact, the little growth we are seeing is from immigrants and, particularly in New Hampshire, retirees who come to reap the benefits of income tax free living.
But demographics are only part of the problem. There are other graying states whose labor shortages are far less acute. We also have cultural problems.
Many communities in the Seacoast have practices that discourage young families and children. The high school population over the next 20 years is expected to drop 27 percent in New Hampshire and 23 percent in Maine. Most of our communities lack affordable housing, in part due to restrictive zoning laws that encourage 55-plus communities and place obstacles in the way of new single-family and rental developments. Sixty percent of high school and college graduates leave the state upon graduation.
So we have fewer high school graduates, those we do have are not sticking around and those that stick around are urged to attend four-year colleges like their highly educated parents rather than entering the trades and getting a really good paying job. Need proof? In Portsmouth last year they closed the high school’s construction trades program due to lack of enrollment and Manchester Community College closed its program as well.
There are many small solutions being implemented. Seacoast Harley-Davidson, for example, worked with Great Bay Community College to create a motorcycle repair certificate program. And GBCC has long worked with Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Sig Sauer, local hospitals and others on specialty training programs. The cooperation between GBCC in Rochester and the aerospace companies Albany and Saffran are true successes. The state is also working with the recovery community to help businesses hire people who are trying to get their lives back on track after battling addiction. But these excellent programs cannot meet the ever-growing demand for workers.
So what’s the solution?
Demographer Peter Francese is working with a talented team researching that question. They believe communities need to remove barriers to the development of affordable housing and cease incentives for age-restricting housing. They need to consolidate school districts (which Maine tried and failed to do under Gov. John Baldacci) to make them more efficient and then provide funding to create excellent public schools.
Will Arvelo, former GBCC president and New Hampshire’s current director of economic development, says we need to change people’s thinking about work in the trades and help high school students understand those jobs pay well and are rewarding. Arvelo also believes we need to do a better job marketing our state to young families and immigrants as a great place to work, play and raise a family.
Changing our approach to young families, children and immigrants won’t be easy, but an increasingly stagnant economy caused by companies moving out of state and homegrown businesses unable to fulfill customer demand is not an acceptable alternative.