Study finds dearth of ‘good jobs’ in North Country

As a mechanical engineer and a consultant, Andre Caron has traveled the country in his career of more than 30 years in the telecommunications industry. He has worked in New Zealand, Bermuda and in various parts of Europe and Africa. For the past year and half, he was a vice president for Conversent Communications, living and working in Manchester five days a week and seeing his Berlin home on the weekends. Now Caron, 55, has done something unusual for a Berlin native. He’s found work in his old hometown.

“Right now, I think being home is more important to me than making a lot of money,” said Caron, the city’s housing coordinator. “We live not too far from the cemetery, and I’ve seen a lot of my classmates get buried. I realize that chasing money is not the most important thing in the world.”

For others in the North Country of New Hampshire and in other parts of rural New Hampshire, chasing money is more like a race for survival in a region where the rural worker earns nearly $10,000 a year less than the average urban or suburban employee, according to a recent study by the Kids Count projects of the Maine’s Children Alliance, the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire and the Vermont Children’s Forum.

The study of the rural economies of northern New England shows that in 2000 the average job in rural Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont paid $26,210, compared to an average income of $35,000 for jobs in the non-rural sectors of those same states.

While manufacturing jobs have been declining both nationally and throughout the region, the rural areas of northern New England have lost fully half of their manufacturing base between 1970 and 2000, the report said. And in one recent five-year period (1997-2002), Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont suffered a net loss of 1,265 farms as well. The dwindling number of farms has hurt the local businesses that supplied them, creating “a downward spiral of lost jobs (that) has deprived some remote villages of their economic core, leaving residents isolated and at greater risk of poverty,” the report said.

The biggest growth of jobs in the area has been in retail and other service-sector jobs that offer low wages and few, if any benefits, the study noted.

“It makes it clear that we’re looking at a dramatic shift in economic structure,” said Ellen Shemitz, president of the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire. “It’s not a matter of looking at any one community as being unable to cope.”

And, Shemitz said, policymakers need to re-examine some long-standing practices affecting rural economies, including approaches to job creation.

“There needs to be a lot more assessment of how we can bring better-paying jobs into rural areas,” she said.

In the meantime, the report recommends raising state minimum wage requirements and extending health insurance to uninsured children. More families lack health insurance in rural areas, where there is also less access to physicians, Shemitz said. Many of the working poor are unaware of the Earned Income Tax Credit, she said, but are aware that the local property tax is making it difficult for them to hold on to their homes.

“The data very clearly show that the current tax structure negatively impacts low-income working families” said Shemitz. “How do we fund education? How best to invest in children’s future? That conversation has yet to happen.”

Some positive trends

According to the report, there may not be many children to invest in if present trends continue in rural northern New England.

The number of children under 5 declined by slightly more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2000, while those ages 5 to 19 increased by only 3.1 percent. The sharpest drop in population was the 22.6 percent decline in people between 20 and 34 years of age.

Bill Andreas, executive director of the Business Enterprise Development Council in Berlin, said the exodus of young adults is an old story in New Hampshire’s northernmost counties.

“Part of it is the lack of good-paying jobs,” said Andreas. “Part of it is the lack of high-speed telecommunications. And a lot of it is the social climate. They like to be with other young people. They like to have an active social life and there’s a lot less of that in the North Country.”

The region’s economic base was reeling a few years ago when American Tissue Company went bankrupt and closed the pulp and paper mills in Berlin and Gorham, leaving some 800 people suddenly unemployed. Even with the mills reopened under new ownership, employing some 650 to 700 workers, the long-term effects of the closure continue to plague the region’s economy, Andreas said.

“When the mills shut down for almost two years, a lot of the loggers went out of business,” he said. “Now the mills are up and running, and there are few loggers left to bring the wood out of the woods.”

Foreign competition also has taken its toll on wood industries, Andreas noted.

“The other business that was affected was the furniture business. A lot of that business has gone out to North Carolina and then overseas to China. It’s not of the same quality, but at a far lesser price.”

Workers in rural areas have fewer job and career options and must travel greater distances to find them, said Gorham Town Manager Bill Jackson, a former town administrator for Derry.

He recalls when Derry’s largest employer was Fairways Apartments. But most of the adult residents were employed in nearby southern New Hampshire or northern Massachusetts communities. “In the southern part of the state, it’s different,” he said. “If you don’t have a job in Derry, you go to Londonderry or Merrimack or Salem. If you’re in Berlin, Portland or Concord is a good distance away.”

Unemployment is not much of an issue in rural northern New England, where a jobless rate of slightly more than 4 percent is nearly as low as in the urban centers. But the statistic does not reflect the number of people who are working at less than full-time jobs for less than living wages. Many rural residents are working two or three part-time jobs to try and make ends meet, according to the Kids Count report.

“In fact there are enough jobs,” said Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research in Laconia. “There just aren’t enough good jobs — good jobs that pay a decent wage and offer benefits and come with a chance of career advancement.”

“It’s easy to make $60,000 a year in a technology environment. It’s extremely difficult to earn that in a tourism economy, unless you own the place,” he said.

But not all of the trends are negative.

Caron believes that access to high-speed Internet, while still limited in the North Country, will play an important role in bringing greater economic opportunity to the remote areas of the state.

His wife, Colette, works at home as a case manager for Windham Injury Management Group in Bedford. “She works from the company database as if she were sitting there at a desk, though she’s 135 miles away,” said Caron. The opportunity to enjoy the beauty and recreational opportunities of the Great North Woods, while being in touch electronically with employers, customers and clients will help attract and retain an educated and more affluent workforce, he believes.

“I think it’s going to help lure professionals that want to move up here,” said Caron. “It will allow companies to expand without building a big infrastructure — office, secretaries, things like that.”

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