An Exit Interview With N.H.'s Outgoing Economic Development Director

Dec 9, 2016

The state’s outgoing Director of Economic Development Carmen Lorentz sat down with NHPR's Morning Edition to reflect on her time on the job, and what needs to happen to improve the state's economy.

Lorentz isn't going far: she's the new Executive Director of the Laconia Area Community Land Trust.

  Congrats on the new job. You’re a Lakes Region native and you still live in Belmont, so this is a return home of sorts. What attracted you do this new role?

I am really passionate about workforce development right now as this point in my career, so I was very interested in the opportunity to approach that from a new angle. Affordable housing is a huge component of workforce and community development, so it’s very interesting to me to take on this new challenge.

I want to look back a bit on your time as the state’s Director of Economic Development.

When you started, you said the biggest problem facing New Hampshire was retaining and attracting young talent. After three years on the job, how would you say the state is doing in that regard?

We’re doing a lot more, actually. It’s very exciting. We at the division have been working on several projects related to workforce development. Right now, we’re laying the groundwork for a talent attraction marketing campaign, really leveraging the marketing that our tourism division does out of state. They brand New Hampshire as a great place to visit, so we’re building on that to also brand New Hampshire as a great place to work. And we’re focusing on some key industries for that.

What are some of those industries?

Manufacturing tech, and that’s kind of broadly defined as people who have skills in IT or computer science, so that kind of crosses a lot of industries at this point. Also, health care and hospitality will come later on.

On this issue, what can the state be doing do better?

I really do think the state needs to step up and really be branding and marketing itself to skilled talent. Fifty years ago, economic development was all about locating your company near the resources you needed, whether that was wood or mineral resources or even before that water, but the resource now is people. And so we really have to focus on growing, keeping the people that we have here, and then attracting other people to the state, people who grew up here but maybe went away, showing them that they can come back, they can earn a great living here, have a great life. So that I think really is our number one challenge for the foreseeable future.

How do you attract those people? Traditionally we hear about people who grew up in New Hampshire, went away after college, started a career elsewhere, but came back here to start a family. Is that happening as much as it once did? What factors are keeping that from happening?

I think there’s a perception about what kinds of jobs exist in New Hampshire. Quite frankly, a lot of younger people now have a pretty high degree of debt when they graduate from college. So they’re very much drawn to urban areas where the salaries are higher. But I think they sometimes forget to factor in the cost of living, which kind of wipes out that higher salary. So while you might think it’s that much better in Boston, if you actually sat down and did the numbers, you might find that it’s pretty similar in terms of what your net disposable income is going to be after you pay off your loan every month, and your rent or mortgage. So I just think we need to do a much better job of letting people know that. Most states have some kind of campaign going on, so it’s an area where New Hampshire needs to start reaching out. We can’t just rely on the fact that we’ve always been a great place to live, and we all know that, but we do need to tell people that there are opportunities for them here.

We hear a lot in Concord about trying to attract more businesses to New Hampshire, but we also hear from business leaders who say there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill the jobs they have. What do you make of what seem to be competing narratives?

We hear from many companies that say 'I could go after this other contract, but I don't think I could fulfill it, I just don't have enough people' That's not an uncommon story, so we know that this is holding people back.

  My job as an economic development person is to listen to the companies, that’s really our role in the Division of Economic Development. We spend all day every day talking to companies in New Hampshire and that’s what they are telling us that their constraint is right now. We hear from many companies that say 'I could go after this other contract, but I don’t think I could fulfill it, I just don’t have enough people.' That’s not an uncommon story, so we know that this is holding people back. And quite frankly, when it comes to business recruitment, that is one of the issues that we’re talking much more about than we were 10 years ago. Companies are looking at New Hampshire and saying 'Well, if I do decide to open this location, how are you going to make sure there’s going to be enough people to work there?' They look at our demographics, they look at our unemployment rate, they see that we’re basically at full employment, and it’s a legitimate concern that they have. So we spend a lot of time working with the university system, the community college system, helping companies connect to those institutions to help with talent recruitment. But we have to be doing more and we have to be even more creative than we have been.

New Hampshire companies exported more than five hundred million dollars in goods in the first half of this year to Canada and Mexico, and another one hundred seventy five million dollars to China.

Are you hearing concerns from New Hampshire businesses about what trade may look like under President Trump’s administration?

It’s really too soon to tell. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we haven’t had a lot of specific conversations about that yet. I think everybody’s waiting to see what will the policies be and that will impact our companies. But certainly manufacturing is a big part of our economy and a lot of those manufacturers to export those products all around the world, even the very small companies. You’d be surprised at some of the companies here involved in international trade. So I think it’s important to listen what they have to say about how that might impact their business going forward.

We have a new governor coming on board, Republican Chris Sununu. What are some things you’d like to see the governor-elect and lawmakers in Concord do?

We’ve put a request in our budget for the next biennium for implementing a talent attraction marketing strategy. We have a very small marketing budget at the division, so that’s a very concrete thing right out of the gate that both the governor and the legislature can do is support that request. It’s fairly modest. But without it, we won’t be able to do that type of work which we know is something that’s holding us back.