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Friday, April 20, 2012

Panel: Middle-skills workers hard to come by

NASHUA – When officials discuss the problem of finding enough workers with the so-called “middle skills,” meaning they have a high school diploma but not a bachelor’s degree, a lot of numbers get tossed around. This may be the most surprising: $75,000.

That’s a typical salary for a certain level of auto mechanics graduating from Nashua Community College programs, said Lucille Jordan, the school’s president, at a Thursday morning gathering of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce.

“Their parents want them to get a bachelor’s degree, but they just want to work on cars,” Jordan said.

At that sort of pay, the parents’ wishes might get overridden – which, to many of the people at Thursday’s meeting, would be just fine.

“Finding such people is a lot harder than looking for engineers and Ph.D.’s. It’s a completely different kind of recruiting,” said Clifford Gabay, president of Resonetics, a Nashua micro-machining company. Its 140 employees include many operators of computer-controlled machinery, a big part of the middle-skills category.

Thursday’s gathering, the second of three monthly Citizens Bank Business Insider breakfast meetings, discussed research by Julia Dennett of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, titled “The Middle-Skills Gap: Ensuring an Adequate Supply of Skilled Labor in New England.”

Largely because the population of non-Hispanic whites is growing slowly and the region has few other minority populations, she said, northern New England is facing a potential dearth in many types of workers. The situation is particularly bad for middle-skills workers partly because the region has a relatively high proportion of people who attend private four-year colleges.

“The region is good at moving people into high-skills areas. Why hasn’t it been good at moving into middle-skills areas?” Dennett said during her presentation.

She estimated that the number of these workers would have to grow between 15 percent and 30 percent in less than a decade to meet anticipated demand.

One measure of the shortage, she said, is the wage premium being given to these positions – hence $75,000 salaries for certified, skilled auto mechanics.

Research indicates that the middle-skills issue is caused not just by a few new industries being created but by mid-level jobs in many industries becoming more complex due to computerization and other changes, Dennett said. As a result, no response can be narrowly focused.

Possible solutions include luring more workers here, the premise behind New Hampshire’s Stay, Work, Play program, which is aimed at young adults; boosting the community college and junior college system as well as pushing more such training in high school; and making training possible for current workers, especially older ones.

Cary Rosenberg of Watts Water Technologies of Franklin, a member of Thursday morning’s panel, argued that federal tax policy could help.

Currently, dollar-for-dollar tax credits for training are capped when salaries reach $100,000, Rosenberg said, but that cuts off a lot of experienced middle-skills workers who want to transition as industry changes – an important consideration in New Hampshire, where keeping near-retirement employees on the job is a benefit to local business.

Another important need, agreed several speakers, is to overcome society’s feeling that machining and such jobs are undesirable, dead-end work.

“You don’t make a cellphone that everybody wants in a dirty, nasty manufacturing environment,” said Rosenberg, who is also a member of the state chapter of the Society for Manufacturing Engineers and of the New Hampshire Machining Association. “Much of this work is almost clean-room work, done with positive pressure.”

The first Business Insider talk, in March, was from what Chamber President Chris Williams called the “30,000-foot level,” discussing the demographic, tax and policy features that have made New Hampshire economically successful in the past two decades.

Thursday’s panel discussion was at the “10,000-foot level,” Williams said, while next month’s will be at metaphorical ground level. Titled “Lessons for Nashua’s Future from Resurgent Cities across America,” it looks at what lessons Nashua can learn from some other New England cities. It will be held May 24, also at Courtyard by Marriott on Southwood Drive.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or