There is shared agreement that NH has a workforce problem. We have a shortage of workers today, and the problem will only get worse as our demographics shift to greater proportions of older residents. According to 2016 population projections from the state, about one out of every three NH residents in 2035 will be age 60 or older.
Today there are approximately 175,000 children in NH’s public schools, grades K-12. About 70,000 are in grades 8-12, each student with great potential to contribute to the state economy as a member of the future workforce.
What do we need to do to support them and help them access jobs? How can we help them get the skills they need? What gaps do we need to fill to ensure their success?
Students have varying experiences in schools across the state. Many students have the good fortune to live in a community with well-supported schools and the resources to ensure that they have a well-rounded and high-quality education. But consider the experience of students who happen to live in the state’s property-poor school districts and in communities that have continued to experience economic decline since the recession.
These schools struggle to retain teachers and provide access to the same opportunities, based in large part on the fiscal capacity of their community and its ability to raise revenue to support a range of public services, including education. It sets these schools into a downward spiral. These towns need to attract more property tax-payers, which becomes increasingly more difficult with each round of budget cuts. These schools may reduce hours for music teachers, guidance counselors, art teachers or physical education teachers at a time when students need to learn to be creative, goal-oriented, team-focused, well-adjusted and healthy—the very qualities NH employers say they desperately need.
How must it feel to be these kids? Is NH a place they will want to continue to call home when they graduate? Will they want to join the workforce, buy a home and raise a family?
With so much focus on attracting new workers and families to the state, we should not forget that we have 175,000 students in our schools today—and we need them to stay.
Challenges to Retention
New Hampshire ranks dead last among states in terms of state funding for higher education, and our low levels of public funding have persisted for some time. New Hampshire is also known to have the highest level of student debt in the nation. Graduates of four-year colleges in NH with student loans had the highest average level of debt of graduates from any state, based on estimates from 2016, with more than $36,000 on average. These two rankings are related and may influence individual and family decisions, such as whether to attend college here or pay less in another state. It may also factor into decisions of current or prospective residents who may factor the cost into their decisions of where to live and buy a home.
Some NH employers offer benefits that aid their employees in paying down student debt, and also offer tuition reimbursement. But these benefits are available only to employees with the good fortune to work for an employer who can afford to provide them. Most graduates are left to shoulder these debt burdens on their own, and this limits their ability to take on the added debt that comes with a mortgage. We need new tools to help residents with student debt buy homes, build savings and achieve financial stability.
We need to pull many levers in our efforts to solve our workforce challenges. Key among these levers is our funding and support for the state’s public education system, from kindergarten to college.
Education is a cornerstone of our economy. Increasing investments in our public schools and colleges would be an important step toward ensuring sustained economic vitality and a more prosperous future for all NH residents.
AnnMarie French is interim executive director of the NH Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization in Concord. Learn more at nhfpi.org .