Matching worker skills with needs of small businesses

"Our company has openings and would like to hire and expand, but we can’t find workers with the right skills for the job." Time and again I hear variations on this challenge from small business owners who are ready to expand their businesses and invest in New Hampshire workers. Monday morning in Manchester, I will join with Sen. Kelly Ayotte to convene a field hearing of the Small Business Committee to explore ways to equip our workers with the skills to fill the high-quality, high-paying jobs that our small businesses are creating.

The challenge is to create a win-win for the Granite State economy: A win for workers, who gain access to jobs that will help build a prosperous middle class, and a win for our small businesses, which are able to grow and keep their competitive edge in the global marketplace.

According to the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy, the advanced manufacturing and high-technology sectors are now the leading drivers of our state’s economy, paying higher wages and dramatically increasing exports. These dynamic industries are rapidly adopting new technologies, often requiring skills that schools don’t yet teach and labor markets don’t yet supply. To address the shortage of skilled workers, we need to build – and generously fund – a workforce development infrastructure that is as nimble and dynamic as our state’s leading industries.

New Hampshire faces big workforce challenges, including replacing baby boomers who are rapidly reaching retirement age, as well as training and retaining talented workers to fill the estimated 43,000 new jobs in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – that will be created in our state over the next five years.

The good news is that we are stepping up to this challenge – and we know what works. Our K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions are placing a sharp new emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coursework, and encouraging community college and university students to pursue STEM majors and careers.

The seven independent colleges of our New Hampshire Community College System are working aggressively to equip Granite Staters with critical, in-demand job skills, including in STEM fields. More than 27,000 students annually pursue a broad range of associate degrees, certifications, and specialized training.

Next month, New Hampshire Granite State community colleges will complete the fifth year of a $20 million competitive grant from the federal Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program to bolster training in advanced manufacturing skills. Nashua Community College, in cooperation with local and regional manufacturing companies, has used $1.6 million in TAACCCT funding to renovate its Precision Manufacturing training laboratory, and another $2.5 million to fund a new curriculum, Advanced Manufacturing by Innovation and Design. Nearly 8,000 Granite State students have received training thanks to TAACCCT funding, with participation by more than 100 industry partners. Hiring rates for graduates are near 100 percent in most of the degree programs.

Manufacturing is making a comeback in the Granite State, creating a surge of new job opportunities. These jobs typically do not require a traditional college degree, but they do require specialized skills and advanced training. For our state to keep a competitive edge both nationally and globally, we need to bolster our workforce development infrastructure, including creative public-private partnerships, to equip our workers with the skills that businesses need in order to grow and flourish. This can be a big win-win for the Granite State.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is the senior U.S Senator from New Hampshire and the senior Democratic member of the Senate’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.