Event puts NH's aging workforce on display

Panelists agree, employer involvement is essential to attract young talent and retain older professionals


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AARP State Director Todd Fahey said employers should talk to their older professionals about their expectations because most workers will not retire at 65, but may want flexible hours or to shift to part time.

Most discussions addressing the shortage of workers focus on millennials. Thursday’s Winning Workforce Strategies – a joint event of NH Business Review and the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies – dealt with millennials too, but also looked at those on the other end of the age spectrum.

“People don’t just drop off the cliff once they reach 65,” said Todd Fahey, the state director for the American Association of Retired Persons.

And it’s a good thing they don’t. Because while the number of young people in the state is decreasing, the number of those reaching retirement age is growing, and that’s bad news for an economy that desperately needs not only bodies, but bodies with skills, according to the opening presentation by Greg Bird, an economist of New Hampshire Center for Public Policies Studies.

Held at the Manchester Country Club, the room was packed with human resources professionals desperately trying to hire in this full employment state.

Bird’s summary of the state’s demographics offered little comfort. The workforce population ages 25-59 is expected to decrease by 40,000, while those in the 65-74 threshold is expected to rise, but the later group is much less engaged in the workforce: around 30 percent compared to 85 percent. Engagement will hopefully increase, but it still presents a problem.

Attracting and retaining more millennials, of course, is key. Some 60 percent of high school graduates leave the state, the highest percent in the country, according to Mike Decelle, dean of the University of New Hampshire at Manchester and chief workforce officer for the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI).

Bird’s workforce out-migration, puts New Hampshire only behind Vermont, but we are right up there, with the rest of the region. That’s partly due to high-income students going off to college to explore the world and make their fortune, while their poorer counterparts in the South are more likely to attend public colleges close to home.  

Will Stewart, the executive director of Stay Work Play, hopes to win some of them back, the “boomerangers,” he called them, by showing them how the area has become more vibrant.

But the way things are now are pretty grim.

“It’s bad,” Bird said. With productivity at a standstill, “we need more people working more hours. We will continue to struggle with growth, because there will be a point where businesses are going to go elsewhere because they can’t find qualified employees.”

Fahey however took issue with concept of a static workforce bracketed at 65. First of all, the age of full retirement has crept up to 66. Secondly, employees want to work longer. And thirdly, they have to. 

“The fact is the average Social Security check is about $1,300 a month, the average New Hampshire 401k plan is about $26,000. You do the math. Many people can’t stop working at 65.”

Perhaps, Fahey suggested, the state could turn this aging population image on its head. Older workers have the experience that younger workers need. Perhaps they can stay on, at least part-time, in a mentoring capacity.   

“We could rebrand it, and sell it as a competitive advantage,” he said.  

But how to persuade older workers to stay on longer, or get them to come out of retirement?

Formalizing the relationship mentoring relationship would help. Workshops or a discussion on such things as a health care plan that dovetails with Medicare is another. And just plain commonsense recruitment would be a third: don’t just put pictures of young people in the help wanted ad, or don’t put an upper limit on experience.  

But older workers sometimes want the same thing as millennials such as flexible hours, and the ability to work from home. Older workers might not be taking care of their kids, but they often do take care of their grandkids or their ill spouses.

Some of the themes carried over to the next panel. When Hitchiner Manufacturing Co. Inc., recently started offering part-time hours for the first time in the Milford plant, it was mainly the older workers, not the younger ones that took advantage of it.

And mentoring also goes beyond older vs younger, pointed out Eric Herr, the Center’s board chair, who worked with a number of high tech firms (including Autodesk, a publicly traded company with operations in New Hampshire). It was while serving as the vice president of finance and planning at Sun Microsystems in California, that Herr offered some business insight to his tech savvy employees, in exchange for their technology tips. One of those employees, Eric Schmidt, went on to head Google.  

Decelle remembered when he started out working at Bell Laboratory, “the first thing when I walked in the door was assigned to a mentor” but workforce development, he said, is sadly neglected in the modern workforce, “because nobody feels they have the time.”

However, workforce development was not neglected in this workshop. Indeed it was among the main focus, especially a closer relationship between educational institutions and businesses. Stay Work Play talked about their internship website.  

“Anything that we can do to connect young people make connections the better,” said Stewart. “It’s not just learning the skills, it’s establishing friendships, maybe even meeting someone and getting married and settling in the state.”

Hitchiner, after once searching for talent across the nation – only to lose them “once they learn that it snows in New Hampshire” – now mainly recruits locally and trains from within, offering a stripped down engineering program in partnership with Keene State College, explained Sullivan. The company will pay the full cost of tuition if it’s related to advancement in the company (though they do have to promise to pay it back if they quit the company to go someplace else).

Exeter Health Resources worked out a deal with Great Bay Community college to transform a two-year associate degree into a 12-week boot camp certification for aspiring medical assistants.

“We needed a more aggressive approach, to get people to learn faster and train up quicker,” said Christopher Callahan, vice president of human resources at Exeter Health Resources. “We couldn’t wait two years for medical assistants. We need them this afternoon.”

These are the kind of things employers need to do, summed up Sara Colson, director of Workforce Accelerator 2025, a program of the Business and Industry Association and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation that is trying to bring 84,000 college educated workers into the state.

“What is not working is not doing anything,” she said. “To solve workforce needs you have to have skin in the game.”

But panelists really didn’t have too many suggestions regarding what the state used to do to solve its labor problems: hire more immigrants.

John Clayton, a former Union Leader columnist who now heads the Manchester Historic Association, told the tale. When Amoskeag Manufacturing Company needed thousands of workers to fill its mills in Manchester – then rural Derryfield, with only 500 people – they took advantage of refugees from the Irish potato famine, sent recruiters up to Quebec, sent agents to Germany for engineers and to Belgium for those experienced with lace. They built parks, supported dental clinics and theater troops, all in an effort to attract some 17,000 workers (at the company’s height) from around the world.

“They were proactively seeking workers to help the company. Immigrant laws are different now, but it’s important to know it has been done before, so it can be done again,” Clayton said.

The state has net influx of 2,000 people foreign workforce a year, compared to domestic migration that has been relatively stagnant, Bird pointed out.

But there isn’t the same concentration of immigrants, and too many legal restriction to make that a viable solution to workforce issues, said several panelists.

There are many talented people around the world, said Herr, but for most large companies, it was easier and cheaper to expand overseas rather than try to move them here.

“People would love to work here, and would come if they could get in,” he said. “It’s just too hard to get in.” 

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