Editorial: Manufacturing a Workforce in the Upper Valley

Friday, March 02, 2018

Both New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott have made jobs Job One. Not just creating new ones, but — even more important these days — finding ways to help Vermont and New Hampshire employers fill the thousands of job openings they already have.

Welcome to the program, guys. The Upper Valley’s major employers have been working this turf for years.

Scott, a Republican, holds that his state’s workforce is shrinking by six people every day. (That claim is not without controversy. State President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, a Democrat-Progressive, has challenged the figure as inflated and called it “dated” and “cherry picked.”) To address the problem, Scott has launched a $3.2 million workforce growth initiative, led by state Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, and former state Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, with the goal of attracting about 2,200 new workers a year to Vermont.

For his part, Sununu, also a Republican, made workforce development a top legislative priority this year and earmarked nearly $1 million for robotics education to help prime the high-tech workforce pump. (State Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord-area Democrat, has taken Sununu and the Republican-controlled Legislature to task for failing to act on the state’s worker shortage last year and so has sponsored a bill, SB 567, to bolster workforce development, employee recruitment and job-skills training in New Hampshire.)

Scott and Sununu appear to be moving in the right direction. But ideas that bubble up from Concord or flow down from Montpelier can always be counted on to do one thing: stop at the Connecticut River. Upper Valley employers, however, draw workers from both states, and their workforce-development efforts cross the border, as well.

About seven years ago, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center had hundreds of job openings to fill — medical assistants, pharmacy technicians, medical coders and other positions — and few qualified applicants to fill them. A chance meeting between DHMC’s workforce development director and officials with Vermont HITEC, a workforce training and consulting firm in Williston, Vt., led to the creation of an apprenticeship program that was expected to help the hospital fill as many as 400 jobs over five years. Vermont HITEC also developed and taught apprenticeship programs for Lebanon-based Hypertherm, which makes high-tech industrial cutting systems, and for Canam-Bridges in Claremont, a fabricator of steel girders.

More recently, as business writer John Lippman reported last month, Hypertherm and Lebanon-based Fujifilm Dimatix, which makes industrial inkjet printheads, have teamed up with Lebanon High School and Thetford Academy on a program that will introduce New Hampshire and Vermont students to all phases of the manufacturing process at each company, including product concept and design, cost analysis, engineering, building, marketing and even human resources.

Hypertherm is a pro at this. For four years it has been running a summer institute that offers paid internships to high school students and last year started Middle School STEM Camp to introduce younger students to modern manufacturing principles. And so is GW Plastics Inc., based in Bethel and Royalton, which began its School of Tech program for high school students in 2015 and also offers a comprehensive training program called GW University. And so is Whelen Engineering in Charlestown, which began its Little League of Manufacturing program with the Claremont School District in 2011.

We hope the governors’ new workforce development efforts bear fruit, not just photo-ops. If not, they can always visit the Upper Valley to see how it’s done.