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Labor shortage even extends to town leadership with Upper Valley positions unfilled

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/12/2021 9:41:57 PM
Modified: 8/12/2021 9:42:06 PM

ENFIELD — Upper Valley municipalities searching for new leaders are having trouble finding people willing and capable of filling key roles, leading to longer gaps between resignations and new hires.

Many candidates up for top jobs are hesitant to move during the coronavirus pandemic and as caseloads attributed to the highly contagious delta variant rise, town officials say.

Applicants also report trouble finding housing and worry about the region’s high cost of living.

“People moving across the country have to find a place to live. And, as you know from the real estate market, it’s not easy right now,” Jack Wozmak, Enfield’s interim town manager, said Thursday.

Enfield contracted with Meredith, N.H.-based Municipal Resources Inc. for Wozmak’s services in November, shortly after former Town Manager Ryan Aylesworth departed for a job in Connecticut.

Since then, the town conducted two searches, reviewing more than 40 applicants and interviewing dozens of people.

However, Wozmak said, “virtually all of them” had difficulty finding a place to live, and housing is likely to come into play as the town readies for a third search to start in mid-September.

The Upper Valley’s private sector employees have said for years that housing poses a major hurdle to filling hundreds of positions, with many having to rely on visiting professionals or those with long commutes to fill openings.

The Upper Valley needs about 10,000 new housing units by 2030 to meet increased demand for homes, according to a report released in May.

The “Keys to the Valley” report, written by the region’s three planning commissions, also found that more programs to reduce the cost of housing are needed, as are smaller homes for young and older families.

Hartford officials experienced those challenges firsthand during their monthslong effort to find a replacement for Town Manager Brannon Godfrey, who resigned in April 2020.

Some applicants weren’t aware of the region’s housing woes and, after an interview, would call and take their name out of the running, Selectboard Chairman Dan Fraser said.

People also didn’t want to move during the pandemic and were more comfortable maintaining jobs that allowed them to work from home, he added.

After hiring two interim managers, the Selectboard in late December announced the hiring of Tracy Yarlott-Davis, who previously served as an auditor in Oakland, Calif.

Fraser said the town is happy with Yarlott-Davis but might not have considered her application if more experienced town managers were in the running.

“On paper, she didn’t look fantastic,” Fraser said. “But interviewing her, she was amazing.”

Norwich Selectboard Chairman Roger Arnold said he’s preparing to face the same difficulty as his community starts its search for a new town manager.

The Norwich Selectboard voted late last month not torenew Town Manager Herb Durfee’s contract, and his four-year tenure is scheduled to end Aug. 30. The board on Wednesday also gave Arnold permission to reach out to a possible interim candidate and engage with firms that could search for Durfee’s successor.

“Even during non-pandemic times, this is a competitive labor market,” he said. “I imagine it is very hard for communities like Norwich to compete not only with the private sector but also larger municipalities who perhaps have larger budgets to offer their top officials,” he said.

Arnold added that Norwich’s past executive searches took between three and six months, but he’s prepared for it to take longer to find the right person.

Aside from housing and the pandemic, Norwich’s history of contention with town managers also could deter candidates.

Durfee replaced former Town Manager Neil Fulton, who resigned in 2016 after 4½ years of service where Selectboard members, often behind closed doors, discussed his performance and whether he needed to sign a formal contract.

Arnold said it’s not lost on him that this isn’t Norwich’s first town manager search this decade.

“And it is my hope that we will conduct a very careful process and make good use of our resources to identify a long-term candidate who will thrive in our community,” he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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