How can we stop other regions from passing us by?

The challenge for NH is to compete with hot (and hip) cities


Published:

I have received many positive comments about a recent column comparing New Hampshire to Denver, Colo., specifically Denver changing from an energy and agricultural economy to a tech and health care focus.

There is no secret here. Every region wants to keep its well-educated young people, revive its urban neighborhoods and compete in the global economy. Alas, it is not quite so simple (or easy). We are truly in a global market for both goods and services. Web design firms in New Hampshire outsource, or subcontract, a lot of their software engineering to India, China, Vietnam or several European countries. Those are jobs that ideally we would like to keep here in the USA.

The challenge is the shortage of skilled workers. While the U.S. led the globe in graduate education (and maybe still does by a whisker), many of those in U.S. graduate schools are foreign-born and can now choose to return to their home countries where their highly sought after global skills pay great wages and provide a comparable or better standard of living.

There is a trend toward “international teams,” especially operating on “the cloud,” but the pattern has been for more of the highly technical jobs to go to foreign workers.

We hear many theories on why this is happening – weak K-12 education, little interest in STEM-related programs from American students, poor financing so students cannot afford to pursue the sciences. In reality, it is all of these things and more.

The challenge for New Hampshire, and specifically southern New Hampshire, is to compete with hot (and hip), smart cities such as Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore. and Seattle, Denver, Raleigh-Durham, etc. We are smaller by quite a bit. To make a dent, it is not Manchester v. Nashua or Concord v. Portsmouth, but all of southern New Hampshire – Keene, Lebanon, Concord, Dover, Portsmouth, Manchester, Nashua and everything in between. With that assemblage, we begin to scale with Portland, Ore., Austin or Raleigh-Durham. It's the old “we shall all hang together or surely we will all hang separately” line.

A marathon, not a sprint

So how do we make the urban hubs of southern New Hampshire attractive to young, dynamic tech companies?

We need to start with a statewide economic development plan. We then need to identify opportunities in these communities, good commercial space, affordable housing, education centers available and skilled labor. Then we need to identify and target tech entrepreneurs (and funders for them).

This is a marathon, not a sprint. At warp speed we are talking 10 to 15 years. But we need to start, and it is not just startups. We can host satellites of Boston firms (like Digital and Data General three decades ago) or regional offices for New England firms.

In the past five to six months, I have heard dozens of times that tech companies cannot find skilled labor. At the same time, we hear our educational folks saying that they are ready, willing and able to train to exacting standards. Where is the disconnect? In a small state like New Hampshire, where we all know or know of each other, these connections should be almost automatic.

Is there really an exodus of our fresh college graduates? Is it permanent? Will these Gen Y’s never come back?

I think the answer is that they will when it is time to raise a family and set down roots in a safe, clean, healthy place. My daughter Emily (29) talks of returning from Washington, D.C. in a few years. She and her husband will likely take a pay cut, but they are betting that the cost of living drops proportionally. We need to make sure that is the case. The fact is there are real advantages for our young people to travel and experience other places and other ways of doing things. That experience and world view last a lifetime.

I graduated from college on June 14, 1973. I was at Fort Dix, N.J., on June 15. I got out of the Corps of Engineers late in 1976 and moved to Charlotte, N.C. to finish my master’s degree. I worked in the Carolinas and traveled in the South and West extensively, returning to New England in 1979 and settled in New Hampshire in 1980.

My value-add to New Hampshire was several times greater than if I had graduated from UNH and stayed here. So, a strategic plan for the state should establish how many and what types of jobs we need to remain vital and competitive and then identify avenues for securing those employees. Simpler said than done, but we are burning daylight, and other regions are passing us by.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE) and a fellow of the Building Owners and Managers Association (FMA). He can be reached at wbn@nortonnewengland.com.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags