Investing in education to boost the New Hampshire economy
Although New Hampshire has usually been a leader in emerging from past recessions, this time around the rates of both job growth and the recovery of jobs lost are moving at a much slower pace than in the past. In fact, New Hampshire is now ranked 42nd out of 50 states over the last year in job growth. Obviously, that's not where we want to be. So, how can we turn it around?First, it appears that there are job openings throughout the state, and there would be more, if New Hampshire had the workers skilled in the fields where the jobs are. Here 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. • Surveys of employers indicate that about 40 percent of college graduates available to employers do not possess the needed applied skills to fill the job openings those employers have now. • 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. 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 early intervention services to help them make the gains they are capable of.My husband and I are the proud parents of three children. Our youngest had not spoken a word by age 1, nor had she 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 still wasn't clear she would learn to read.Fortunately, we live in a community with strong elementary schools. 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 since. About that need for physical therapy? Our daughter, now 14, 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.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 $14 the public would need to spend later on, for high costs such as special education and, sadly, in some cases, jail. This is why the 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 schoolhouse door, with their "K-Ready Kids" initiative.Now let's take a look at the other end of the educational pipeline -- the University System of New Hampshire.Much is being made of enhancing the STEM fields in education. This is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.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 startups 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. Taxpayers will reap the benefits of supporting stronger STEM programs in New Hampshire's University system.Projections show that the largest group of job opportunities for the next 10 years will be in so-called "middle-skilled" level jobs -- those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree. Who can train the workers to fill those jobs? Community colleges. Workers will also 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 career and technical schools. 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.For example, the Seacoast School of Technology 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 degree programs or, for some students, get them into highly competitive programs, such as the pre-veterinary program at Cornell University.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.Katherine B. Miller is an associate in the Exeter-based law firm of Donahue Tucker and Ciandella.