N.H. Experts: Low Unemployment Doesn't Tell The Full Story of State's Economic Challenges

Jul 5, 2016

Credit Kandy Jaxx / Flickr

These days, the story of New Hampshire’s economy is kind of a “good news, bad news” tale. The good news: Unemployment is low, at least on paper, and wages seem to be rising, if slowly. The bad news: Employers are struggling to fill positions, and lots of prospective employees say they can’t find the kind of stable, full-time work they’d like to have.

“We’re beyond full employment, with a 2.7 percent unemployment rate,” NH Business Review Editor Jeff Feingold said during a monthly economic roundtable on Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange. “What that has meant, finally, is that employees actually are in the driver’s seat and wages are starting to go up pretty significantly, because we haven’t seen growth in wages for quite a while… There are fewer people who are available to work, and because of that employers are being forced to have to raise wages to find the employees they say they need.”

According to Feingold and other experts who weighed in on The Exchange, New Hampshire’s economy is doing better than it has been in recent years. But those same local experts say the state still faces significant challenges when it comes to attracting a qualified workforce and connecting people with full-time jobs.

New Hampshire has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation right now. But Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, says that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“If you just look at the normal measure of unemployment, it’s one of the lowest in the country… About 45 percent lower than the national average. But when you encourage measures of discouraged workers or other things, we’re only 20 percent lower than the national average,” Norton said. “That tells you there are still people we haven’t figured out jobs for those folks and when you combine that with the general demand for construction workers and retail workers, our economy still hasn’t adjusted yet.”

About 27,000 part-time workers here would like to be working in full-time jobs instead, according to a recent report from NH Business Review. At the same time, many employers say they’re having trouble finding qualified people to fill open positions.

“Either they’re not really able to get the jobs that are available, or employers just have some kind of standards for the employees they are hiring,” Feingold said. “And maybe they’re just kind of raising this flag about not being able to find any employees — when maybe there are people available, there are bodies available, but they’re not the ones they want.”

But Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, said geographic factors could also be at play.

“You may have a situation where people in the North Country want to work full-time, but there aren’t full-time jobs for them in the North Country,” Thibeault said. “And employers in Southern New Hampshire are desperate for employees, but they’re all too far away.”

Looking at the big picture, Norton says the state faces a challenge in figuring out how to bridge the divide between the "skills mismatch" hampering its labor market right now.

"There are certainly people looking for jobs, and there are employers looking for jobs, and they're either unwilling to pay the wages to draw people here or these other individuals don't have the appropriate skills. That, highlights, to me, that we have a short-term problem that may not have a short-term solution," Norton said. "The question is: How, long-term, do we deal with this skills mismatch and the transition from an old economy to whatever this new economy is going to be?"

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