Archive for the ‘job growth’ category

More on Shifting Economic Activity in NH

April 17, 2014

My post on the “Shifting Locus of Economic Activity in NH” back in January generated a lot of interest and emails. That post has more views than any other post on this blog over the past year and half. Admittedly that’s setting a pretty low bar as far as blog readership honors go. Nevertheless I want to thank my family as well as those with an interest in flying, swarming insects and an inability to spell “locust” in their search engines for making it possible.

 

As I noted in my first post on the topic, I believe there are a number of economic and demographic indicators that support my contention about the shift in economic activity. Still, there are some (many?) in the Granite State who disagree. In the spirit of giving the public what it wants and sparking debate, I present another of what will be several posts on the topic.
Some themes essential to my thesis are: that the ability to attract and retain talent (skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment) is the critical ingredient responsible for the shifting of activity in NH – as well as the key ingredient for producing a dynamic economy anywhere; and that communities offering amenities and services desirable to “talent” and at a relatively more affordable price are keys to attracting talent. I think price (the ability to offer desirable amenities and services at a relatively more affordable price lower than other communities that offer similar amenities) has been important. But I also think that patterns of economic activity in NH and throughout the country demonstrate that unless your community or state is sitting on a valuable store of fossil fuels or minerals, being cheaper isn’t enough to generate more robust economic activity. One interesting artifact of the debate over local government fiscal policies is the mistaken belief that communities spend more when they contain a higher percentage of lower-income residents. In fact, just the opposite is true – expectations for services, quality, and amenities, along with their costs, generally rise as communities (primarily cities – small and large) generate more economic activity and become wealthier. This typically creates a lot of conflict in communities that are experiencing new economic successes and associated demographic changes and can make sustaining a higher level of economic activity difficult for a community.
Getting back to the evidence that supports my contention about economic activity in NH, the previous decade has not been kind to NH or most states in terms of job growth. I documented the Seacoast’s increasing share of NH’s employment and in key industries in my prior post on the topic.  Here, and in future posts, I will look at some of the demographics of that job growth to support my thesis. The chart below shows the percentage change in jobs among individuals of all educational levels (age 25 and up) in different counties and the State of NH between 2003 and 2012, as well as the percentage of jobs held by individuals with at least a BA degree.

County Job Growth
Similar to my prior post, the chart shows that job growth has been higher in the Seacoast (defined here as Strafford and Rockingham Counties because of data availability while the prior post used data at the community level) than in either Hillsborough County or the State as a whole. More importantly, the chart shows that the rate of job growth in the Seacoast among those with at least a BA degree has exceeded the rates for either Hillsborough County or the State by an even wider margin. Strafford County has seen an especially large increase (largely in Dover – my domicile in the interests of full disclosure) but its much smaller employment base makes larger percentage changes easier to obtain. Again, however, it is not just job growth but the nature of that growth and the shifting of talent that is the key.
The Seacoast accounted for a higher percentage of the state’s net job growth between 2003 and 2012 (chart below). The percentage of the state’s net job growth accounted for by the Seacoast was 70% compared to 46% for Hillsborough County (note the percentages add to more than 100% because some counties had negative job growth during the time period).

Share of States Job Growth
Almost half of the net job growth in NH among workers with a BA degree occurred in the Seacoast. Hillsborough County still has a larger percentage of job holders in the state with a BA degree or higher (37% to 31% in the Seacoast) but that percentage has slipped by almost 1% over the time period, while the Seacoast’s percentage has increased by 1%. Still even shifts occurring at seemingly glacial speed are very powerful. I suppose it is possible that the Seacoast has just been more successful in adding jobs which overqualified BA’s are filling. Based on my initial examination of job growth by industry, I don’t think that accounts for the relative differences, but in future posts I will examine that and other possibilities.

The Locus of Economic Activity in NH is Shifting

January 21, 2014

I gave a presentation last month during which I argued that the locus of economic activity in New Hampshire is shifting to the Seacoast.  That is a provocative statement destined to offend the population centers of Manchester and Nashua and quite likely the individuals elected to represent them. Provocation isn’t my intent, it rarely is, but is often the result nevertheless.  This shift will take years to become more apparent but the evidence for its occurrence appears across a range of important economic and demographic metrics.  Over the past decade, private sector job growth in the combined Portsmouth and Dover/Rochester NECTAs** has outpaced growth in either the Manchester of Nashua NECTAs.  The Seacoast is home to only about 15% of private sector employment, but that percentage is growing.  The shift is not really about the job growth numbers because the Seacoast will always have smaller employment numbers than will the population centers of Manchester and Nashua.  It is about how so much more of the innovation and transformation that is occurring among businesses and industries in the state’s economy is occurring in the Seacoast region.

NH Regional job growth

Alone, the increase in private employment in the Seacoast relative to the Manchester and Nashua regions would not be that significant.  Rather, it is the increasing share of innovation and growth in key industries that the Seacoast is capturing that indicates the locus of key economic activity is shifting.  As the chart below shows, the Seacoast region has marginally increased its share of New Hampshire’s private sector employment since 2004, but it has, in relatively short time, substantially increased its share of finance and insurance industry employment, information industry employment, as well as both health care and manufacturing employment.  Annual town-level data stops in 2012 but with the coming addition of technology dependent, international companies like Safran, the manufacturing trend appears to be continuing.   The one key industry where the Seacoast has not gained share is in professional and business services.   This is a large, important, and growing sector of the New Hampshire economy.  In most states, key professional and business services firms often locate in the state’s largest city.  Major NH Law firms, engineering firms, advertising agencies, and many of the other industries that comprise this sector still seem to prefer to be centrally located and have their main offices in the state’s largest city, Manchester.  Having a main office anywhere other than  the largest city seems to signal, to some, that a business is “regional,” that it does not serve the entire state or the larger New England region. The Seacoast is also capturing a smaller share of retail employment, which is surprising given its location along two state borders.  It is not that retail is declining in the region but rather that it has grown faster elsewhere in the state.

Seacoast share of industries

Manchester and Nashua are still home to more companies in key industries than is the Seacoast and that will be true for some time, maybe always.  Still, there was a time when the Greater Nashua and Manchester areas were the technology and manufacturing center of New Hampshire and almost all important developments in manufacturing and technology industries occurred there.  These regions remain the technology leaders by numbers, but more key developments and new companies in technology and manufacturing are  occurring in the Seacoast.  The development of the Pease Tradeport into a premier location for industries of all types, along with the presence of a major research university (UNH), have played important roles in the shift.  But what is really sustaining the trend is the ability of the region to attract the talent (skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment) that companies in emerging, growing and higher value-added industries desperately need.   As I say far too often, brains are the most valuable resource in the 21st century.  Skilled, well-educated people have the most economic opportunities and they are the most mobile members of society.  Where they choose to locate, robust economic growth is likely to follow.  Examining Census data indicates that skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment have increasingly chosen to live in the Seacoast, and that has provided a key source of competitive advantage to the region.  The chart below shows how the population of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher has changed in some NH cities over the past two decades.  The chart shows that on a percentage basis, Portsmouth and Dover, by far, had the greatest increase of individuals over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree among their populations.  Somersworth, although beginning with a lower concentration of individuals with a bachelor’s degree, had the next largest percentage increase in subsequent decades.  Among the largest cities in the Seacoast, only Rochester has not seen a substantial increase in its population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Changes in Ed Attainment

If the Seacoast continues to increase its concentration of “talent,” then the locus of economic activity in the state will continue to shift toward the region.  Communities in the region continue to attract skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment because, to varying degrees, most have been able to provide a mix of services and social, cultural, and civic amenities, at a price more affordable than communities in other states.  But if being the “cheapest” place to live were the key, the Seacoast would not be thriving.  Rather, it is the combination of services and amenities at  relatively more affordable price (providing a good value) that has been attractive.  Many communities and regions are looking to thrive.   Like all regions in New Hampshire the Seacoast has heard, and for the most part heeded, the call for fiscal restraint (although you can never spend too little for some or too much for others), but most of its communities have looked for ways to continue to provide or increase the quality of their services and the amenities (natural, built, civic, social and cultural) they offer.  It is more difficult for urban areas to attract and retain the skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment that are increasingly the key to a vibrant economy because urban cities have to find ways to provide and encourage a level of services and amenities to compensate individuals for living in cities that have the problems associated with urban environments.

Most of the focus of economic development strategies is on creating policies to ensure a “good business climate.”  I think that is important and I also think NH has a pretty good business climate.  With so much concern over population and labor force growth and demographic changes in NH, more emphasis needs to be placed on creating a good “talent climate” as well as a good business climate. I don’t know that the Seacoast of NH has sought to do that but the demographic and economic data suggest they have done so regardless.   The result has been a competitive economic advantage. On a smaller and slightly different scale you can say the same thing about the Hanover/Lebanon area which serves as a nice control group to assure the importance of amenities don’t just mean having an ocean nearby.

 

** NECTA = New England City and Town Area, a grouping of towns into a connected labor market area, akin to a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area.

What Do Help Wanted Ads Say About the “Skills Gap”?

April 18, 2013

It has been quite a while since I wrote about some of my favorite topics, the “skills gap” and occupational supply and demand.  But since there are recent media reports about the issue and more and new or renewed groups in NH looking to influence the debates and discussions on the issue, let me once again add my $.02.

I’ve made the plea for empirical rather than anecdotal or ideological evidence on the issue and produced a little evidence myself that both points to a skills gap as a contributor to slower than desired employment growth as well as evidence that suggests the issue may not be as prominent an explanation for slower job growth as some believe.  I’ve also noted the larger economic policy debate that engulfs the skills gap issue.  The data I’ve presented in this blog only hints at  answers to the fundamental question of whether slower job growth is more of a problem of labor supply (the number and/or quality available workers with the education, skills and training desitred by employers), or one more of labor demand (not enough employers looking to hire qualified, educated and skilled workers in NH).  I think the charts below  again provide some clues to labor supply and demand trends in NH and also illustrate some bigger trends in the NH economy.

The first chart most directly addresses the skills gap issue.  It shows that in terms of broad occupational groupings, professional and technical job openings are the largest component of on-line help wanted advertisements in NH.  Because these tend to be among the most-skilled and highest-paying jobs we assume that if there were a sufficient supply of labor then job growth in the industries that most employee these occupations would be relatively strong.  In fact, one  industry grouping – business and professional services  – employs a lot of professional and technical occupations and it is growing almost twice as fast as is overall private sector employment in NH.

The crux of the skills gap issue is this: “would a larger or better qualified supply of individuals in these occupations result in faster job growth in NH, or are there other or complimentary factors that also need to contribute to faster growth?”   How you define the problem of slower job growth also largely defines the range of your solutions. Increasingly, and I think somewhat disappointingly,  it also seems to define your ideology (if you have one).

March 2013 HW

The chart  below is less sanguine.  It shows that compared to the same month in 2012, March 2013 help wanted ads in NH for professional and technical ads declined by more than 10 percent.  One month isn’t a trend but recent months have shown more weakness than strength in this indicator.  The chart also shows that the largest improvements in labor demand are not among the most skilled occupations, although changes in the occupational make-up of manufacturing industries makes it increasingly likely that production workers will  have higher levels of education, training and skills.

Pct Change in HW in March

 

What’s Behind the Weak Jobs Report?

April 5, 2013

Bad news arrived today with the release of the monthly employment report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Only 88,000 non-farm jobs were added across the country in March. Following  two months which saw the U.S. add 148,000 and 268,000 jobs respectively in January and February, the low number raises concerns that the U.S. may again be heading for a “Summer slump” after showing signs of stronger job growth early in the year.

I share that concern but I am most interested in what the job growth numbers may or may not imply about recent U.S. economic and domestic policies.  I know sequestration is the hot policy topic and may be blamed or credited for all evil or good that occurs in the U.S, economy this year, but it is really too early for it to register much  impact on March’s job growth.  Two other policies have the potential to more significantly impact job growth in the near term.  The details of the March employment report provide some clues about if and how these policies may affect job growth in the future. The elimination of the temporary reduction in the payroll tax and health care coverage mandates in the Affordable Care Act are policy impacts that we worried about before we started worrying more about the potential impacts of sequestration.

I last posted that gains in home values, stocks and, retirement accounts along with increases in wages and salaries would help the economy overcome the large potential impact on consumer spending from the rise in the payroll tax (elimination of the temporary rate reduction) that took effect in January.  I may have been a little too optimistic about those factors ability to help the U.S. economy overcome more than $100 billion in lost consumer spending power (over $600 million in New Hampshire).   For me, the most troubling piece of data from the March job growth report was the seasonally adjusted decline of 24 thousand retail trade workers and generally downward trend since January, that has followed several months of solid gains in late 2012 (chart below).

U.S. Retail emplyoyment

When housing values are recovering, homeowner’s equity is rising, and employment and wages are growing, retail employment should not decline.  The elimination of the payroll tax cut (along with higher gasoline prices early in the year) likely provided a greater shock to consumers than anticipated.  But another explanation is that implementation of the health care mandates of the ACA could be affecting employment more in some industries.  If so, it would likely impact industries that typically are less likely to offer their employees health care coverage and industries that employ more part-time workers.  Retail and leisure and hospitality industries  meet those criteria but only retail trade lost employment in March.  Because the ACA mandates coverage for full-time employees, one way to avoid the mandate would be to increase part-time employment.  In that case I would expect the average weekly hours of workers in retail or other industries that may be more  affected by the mandate to decline, as more workers were shifted to part-time status but average hours have increased slightly in retail over the past three months.  Looking more closely at the data on part-time employment is needed to get a handle on any ACA impacts.  Over the next few months I will be looking for evidence of  increases in the number of workers working “part-time for economic reasons” – meaning they are working part-time when they want to be working full-time, as well as employment trends in businesses employing between 50 and 499 workers (those most affected by ACA).  Trends in these employment data would provide stronger evidence of any ACA effects but for now, it looks like the payroll tax is the culprit in the retail employment data.

Small Business is Not Booming

March 12, 2013

The National Federation of Independent Businesses just released its monthly report on the condition of  small businesses nationally.  The report is based on a national survey and state-level results are not available.  However you feel about NFIB or their advocacy positions their monthly report is a valuable source of  information about the issues and factors affecting small businesses.

Robust economic growth does not occur unless small businesses are confident, healthy, and hiring.  That seems especially true in NH and is one reason NH’s job growth has been slower than the national average.  I especially pay attention to the headline portion of the NFIB’s monthly survey,  it’s “Small Business Optimism Index”,  because it seems to be a pretty good indicator of near-term job growth in the U.S. and NH.  The simple correlation between the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index (lagged 3 months because it takes some time for optimism/confidence to affect hiring plans) and U.S. Job Growth  is about .68, while the correlation between the NFIB Index and NH employment growth is about .74.   Thus the relationship is slightly stronger between the Index and job growth in NH than it is for the U.S. as a whole.  The NFIB Index inched-up in February, but overall it remains relatively low, suggesting that small businesses aren’t yet ready to provide the boost to hiring that typically occurs in a strong recovery from recession.

NFIB Index and Job Growth

 

A more troubling indicator of the health of small businesses (and thus hiring plans) comes from the Experian/Moody’s Analytics Small Business Credit Index.  This quarterly assessment of the financial health of small businesses suggests the balance sheets of small businesses (in the aggregate) deteriorated in the fourth quarter of 2012.   According to the quarterly report:

“Delinquent balances rose, pushing the share of delinquent dollars higher to 9.7 percent from the prior quarter’s 9.4 percent. A slowdown in personal income growth led to sluggish retail sales, hurting small-business revenues. Though small firms have worked to trim their labor costs in recent months, sales have fallen more quickly, forcing many small companies to borrow funds to cover their payroll expenses…..The next six to nine months likely will be lean ones for small businesses as rising taxes strain household budgets  and nervous firms of all sizes postpone hiring, thereby stunting the jobs recovery. Consumer sentiment is likely to remain subdued, and spending will be underwhelming, which will keep pressure on small-business balance sheets.”

Experian Moodys  Credit Conditions

 

Even A Broken Clock is Accurate Twice a Day

March 8, 2013

I am frequently in error but rarely in doubt, so when I am right I have to make sure someone notices.  Good news was reported today  on job growth nationally, as an estimated 236,000 jobs were added across the country in February.   I hate to sound jaded but in each of the prior two years job growth looked to be accelerating early in the year only to experience a significant mid-year  slump.  For now, however,  it is a positive sign.  I have been especially and uncharacteristically gloomy in my characterization of NH’s economy but there was some little reported good news on that front released last week.  The annual benchmark employment revisions showed that NH has 9,600 more jobs than originally estimated.  I won’t get into why the revisions are necessary and can result in some significant changes in the numbers  but in my very first post in this blog back in October I highlighted the disconnect between the volume of  help-wanted advertising in NH and estimates of job growth in the state.

“In the first ever Trend Lines blog post I begin by asking a basic question:  Could the most recent job growth picture in NH be distorted by numbers that will later be revised?”

I also suggested that growth trends in reported wages and salaries  in the state were also inconsistent with estimated job growth trends. In that post and in subsequent  posts (here and here) and others as well, I talked about a potential “skills gap” as a contributor to the disconnect between help-wanted ads and NH’s reported job growth.  I think a “skills gap” is a contributing factor  but as I argued in my first and subsequent  posts -  my money is on job growth being revised upward.  It is nice to be right but it really doesn’t change the overall theme of NH’s economy- that it continues to under perform relative to states it typically outperforms.  That was also predictable:

“…that the jobs data is wrong and will be revised upward early next year, is real,  but that doesn’t mean the revisions will show NH is again outperforming its neighbors or the nation.  It just means we will look less bad over the past year or so than we do right now.”

Five months later I think that still  sums-up my feelings about the revisions, its good to know we have more jobs but we are still in a growth mode that is too slow.  With the revised job numbers for NH the relationship between help-wanted advertising and reported job growth looks more appropriate.

NH Revised Emp

The revised job numbers also are more consistent with PolEcon’s NH Leading Index which had been signalling stronger employment growth in NH than was first reported.  The revised job numbers are more consistent with the signals provided by the Leading Index.   That may not mean much to anyone but to me it means I won’t have to spend a lot of time re-calibrating the Index and that means a more enjoyable weekend.  Enjoy yours.

Leading index and revised emp

Educational Attainment, Economic Prosperity and Fiscal Reality

March 4, 2013

I write and speak a lot about the importance of demographics to community and regional prosperity.  Over the past several years I have written and spoken about my belief that communities wanting to increase the number and quality of employment opportunities available in their town increasingly need to recognize the importance of being an attractive place for skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment.  Employers in emerging and growing industries  locate in areas where the pool of talent (skilled, well-educated individuals) is “deep” or growing.   A community can still see employment growth even if it doesn’t have a lot of skilled, well-educated individuals if it is located in a region that does have enough of them but the impact on and benefits to the community will be very different.

It is hard to empirically test the importance of skill levels and educational attainment to job growth in individual communities but anyone involved with the location and expansion decisions of employers knows how important the availability of a skilled and educated labor force is.  Because the occupational needs of employers in different industries varies greatly, I, and others, often use the percentage of the population age 25+ with at least a bachelor’s degree as a surrogate for trends in the education and skill-level of the workforce in a community or region. It’s a good way to labelled an elitist, at least by those who don’t know anything about you.  I don’t think only college graduates can get good jobs but it is clear to me that trends in the educational attainment of the population of cities and towns is a pretty good indicator of how the economic fortunes of a community are changing. I’ve tested the relationship statistically and found that there is a  relationship between the change in the percentage of individuals age 25+ with at least a BA degree in a community and employment growth over the past decade.  There are a lot of factors that influence employment growth but over past decade communities that have had larger increases in the percentage of individuals with high levels of educational attainment generally have had better job growth (or at least less negative growth).  The relationship narrowly missed statistical significance when tested on NH’s 40 most populated communities.  Since the recession in the early 2000′s, there has been virtually no private sector job growth in NH (primarily because the last “‘great recession” wiped-out gains from the middle of the decade).  The chart below crudely divides NH’s larger communities into quartiles according to the change between 2000 and 2010 in the percentage of their population age 25+ that has at least a BA degree and the mean change in private sector employment between 2003 and 2011.  One caveat, the figures for 2010 used to calculate this is based on the three-year average of American Community Survey values and smaller communities have larger margins of error in the survey results.  It is just one of the challenges in documenting the relationship between demographics and economic performance at the community level.  Nevertheless, I think  the data point to a relationship were towns that are seeing increasing levels of educational attainment among their population are performing better economically than than those that are seeing less of an increase.

job growth and ed attainment change

It also says a lot about how the character of a community might be changing.  I live in city that has seen a significant increase in the percentage of its population with a BA degree or higher over the past two decades.  That change has contributed to changing expectations of the community (the type of services and amenities it offers).  That type of change creates a clash between the old and new that has and continues to characterize many communities.  In many ways I believe local tax cap debates are more about demographic and socioeconomic changes than they are about economics and fiscal policies.  But I digress.

Skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment have the most economic opportunities and they are the most mobile.  I think keeping and attracting skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment is an increasingly important economic development strategy for communities.  Looking at changes in educational attainment between 2000 and 2010 among NH’s largest communities shows some interesting patterns.  Not surprisingly, some of the communities that have done the most to restrain expenditures have seen the smallest increases in educational attainment levels (some towns like Durham had such high levels – 77%  – they have no way to increase much).

ed attainment change by town

Spending liberally is never a good thing but providing the services and amenities desired by skilled and educated individuals and families at a price (in terms of local taxes) lower than other communities is a good way to accumulate the talented workforce that can increase real prosperity in a community.  Just adding skilled and educated individuals isn’t enough for employment growth, particularly if a community doesn’t want to be a center of employment or is otherwise inhospitable to employment growth.   I don’t think a low tax price alone is enough to attract talent and I don’t think providing amenities and services without regard to price is enough either, but too often never the twain shall meet in striking a balance between prices and  services and amenities and longer-term community development objectives.  I don’t know many local budgets that can’t be cut but unfortunately the cuts usually come at the expense of those services and amenities most likely to help a community attract or retain individuals with the most economic opportunities and choices of where to locate.  When I say or write these things I risk being labeled a big spender or liberal.  In reality I am just documenting trends that seem pretty clear to me.  Nevertheless, my advice to others is never bring data to an ideological fight if you want to escape unscathed.  In an age of austerity, spending decisions need to consider both the current  fiscal reality as well as the longer-term implications for the economic prospects  of  a community.

Where Never is Heard a Discouraging Word

February 27, 2013

Without an accurate assessment of where you are you can’t chart a course to get to where you want to be.   In the context of efforts to strengthen regional and state economies, however,  plotting your coordinates seems especially difficult.   For decades New Hampshire (including me) has become accustomed to hearing that its economy is “doing better than most other states”  and that we can expect to grow faster than a majority of states and all other states in the Northeast.  I have blogged here several times about how that is not currently the case but because about five people read this blog there isn’t much fallout.  But  when someone like me suggests, in a public forum,  that NH is lagging and that superior growth is not currently the case for the state, you can expect some incredulity and push back.

State 12 Month Job Growth

When you speak in a community and present lots of data that suggests it is lagging even more, then you can expect the push back to more likely come with a closed fist.  And when that community is close to where you live, well  it’s probably best to get an unlisted phone number.  I’m no prophet but if I were I  think it would  probably be impossible to be one in your own land.  I like to be the bearer of good news but when the data doesn’t suggest good news is warranted I don’t change the data or the news about it that I bring.  Long ago I learned that being right too early will feel a lot like being wrong.  I don’t know who was more offended by my presentation yesterday at a local chamber of commerce, people who feel I know nothing about their community, the people who think I know nothing about New Hampshire, the people who think I don’t understand the U.S. economy, or the people who think I know nothing about any of these.   An informal tally to-date suggests about an even split.

I am not a twitter user or follower, I am only marginally able to follow my own thoughts and activities throughout the day, but if I were and if I were able to expand the size of a tweet, this is how it would summarize my remarks at the chamber forum:

Economic growth is increasingly associated with concentrations of skilled, well-educated individuals and any state’s, region’s, or community’s longer-term prosperity is likely to be correlated with its ability to attract and retain these individuals.  The ability to keep and attract this demographic is as much a requisite for job growth as it is a result so any region’s development strategy should attend to its capacity to appeal to this  demographic and look to leverage the associated economic benefits .  Understanding the direction of these trends in your community or region, likely tells a lot about recent and future economic performance.

If you happen to discover oil or shale gas under your state or community that tweet applies a lot less.  In addition, small communities can see strong growth from just one or two businesses, but with some exceptions and over the longer-term,  I think the summary holds true.   I am a first generation college graduate and my beginning, and likely my ending, doesn’t warrant even a whiff of elitism of any sort.  But making an association between educational attainment and economic growth apparently implies a disparaging of those who are not college graduates, just as the notion that NH’s economy is growing more slowly than some of the states that we are accustomed to regularly outperforming apparently implies an indictment of “the NH way” compared to to other states.

One or two years of weaker economic growth is not a signal of apocalypse, but its not a bad idea to wonder if it is and to consider ways to avoid it.   For me, the apocalyptic story  for NH would be that, over the longer-term, we become a slow employment growth state that is also a higher cost-of-living state.

State Cost of Living

High costs and slow employment growth have characterized too many states in the Northeast as well as California and they have all suffered as a result.  But at least in California you still have nice weather.

Striking an Economic Strategy With Maslow’s Hammer

January 22, 2013

The great psychologist Abraham Maslow is famously quoted as saying:  “When the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail.”   Maslow gave us all too much credit. When we (NH) have a hammer and know how great it is, we not only treat everything as a nail, we actually perceive everything to be a nail.  We (me included) develop a blindness to “non-nail” problems and creative problem solving takes a back seat to picking up that hammer and smashing the problem.

NH’s relatively low state and local tax burden, especially compared to other states in the Northeast, has and should continue to provide the state’s economy with significant competitive economic advantages.  In an era where “talent” – skilled, well-educated individuals are the resource businesses are most in need of, our state’s fiscal structure has been a magnet for higher-skill, more highly-educated and more mobile individuals and families.  So why does it currently not appear to be offering a competitive advantage (based on job growth and population migration data)?   The question is whether our fiscal system will be enough of an advantage in today’s economy to assure the kind of growth and prosperity the state became accustomed to over much of the past several decades.  Based on the screams of joy I heard last week, the answer for many in NH is a resounding yes.  The news that Massachusetts’ Governor Patrick is proposing to raise income tax rates in that state has been greeted by many in New Hampshire as if the cloud that is NH’s slow job growth is about to be lifted.  Once those new Massachusetts tax rates are enacted NH’s schools and students will perform better, our electricity prices will drop, our young people will choose to enroll in the  newly affordable colleges in NH,  and our communities will be safer, cleaner and offer more and better services at ever lower prices.  For too many in our state,  the future of  NH’s economy is largely determined not by what we do as a state, but by the mistakes that other states make.  I’m no Doc Rivers or Bill Belichick but I don’t think their game plan is ever solely predicated on the other team’s mistakes.   Great states, like great teams, can succeed even when the other “team”  is playing their best.

The monthly state job growth numbers for December, released late last week, continue a disappointing trend that should have NH businesses, policymakers, and citizens asking whether Maslow’s hammer is the only tool to use in shaping an economic strategy for NH’s future.

Annualized Emp. Growth

In the case of economic policy in NH, the “nail” is the high taxes which we have been pounding with our hammer for decades.  For the most part,  NH has successfully pounded that nail well below the surface.  As the chart below shows, state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income in NH are well below the U.S. and neighboring state averages.  Occasionally the nail it pops-up but is usually driven down.  Note that while it did rise for a time during the recession, this was a result of a slow and declining income growth rather than a rise in taxes.

State and Local Tax Burden

The problem is that our love of the “hammer’  as our primary economic tool appears to result in us using a longer and longer nail set in an effort to achieve the same levels of economic success as we have in the past.   Governor Patrick’s proposal to raise Massachusetts’ tax rates may benefit NH, I hope it does, but if it increases the use of our hammer, to the exclusion of other tools,  the benefits may be illusory.  A low tax burden is a great asset but the skilled, well-educated, individuals that drive economic success for the most part (it is certainly not unanimous)  also want the amenities and services that people free from want generally like to enjoy – things like good schools, civic, cultural, social, natural  and recreational amenities.  People want to pay as little as possible for these amenities for sure (and in many cases they expect them for free), but they want them nevertheless.  I think NH’s advantage is really been about providing ‘value” as much as it is about providing just a low tax burden.  As long as we can provide the services and amenities that people want, at a tax price lower than other places, we should be a magnet for the kind of individuals that will help our state thrive.

Our state’s hammer is and will continue to be a great tool, but not for every job, and not if it is used indiscriminately.  Every increase in a tax or raising of a fee isn’t an end to the “NH advantage.”  It wasn’t during the 1980′s or 1990′s when the state was growing remarkably even as taxes and fees with tinkered with (and even one or two major changes) by both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The key is knowing the true economic consequences of changes to different fiscal policies, which ones really hurt or help the economy and which ones have little impact  and by how much.

I like NH’s hammer and I have argued how it has been a great tool in helping us build a house that withstood the ill winds that blew through the Northeast region for decades.  I hope NH’s basic fiscal structure doesn’t change.  But we have become so comfortable wielding our hammer that in our casual over-reliance on it we may just be pounding on the thumbs of those who would live in the nice house with which it was built.

It Seems You Can’t Turn White Collars Blue

January 8, 2013

Two contradictory trends are occurring in NH’s labor market and as Ricky Ricardo would say “somebody’s got some splaining to do”.   I see no other hands up in the room so I will take a brief stab at it.  The chart below shows that help wanted ads in NH rose modestly this year but the rate of employment growth in the state has been declining.

Help wanted and Emp Growth iin NH

It is easy to rest things on, and to take things off, the top of a flat head so here are a few off the top of mine that could be influencing these trends: 1) It could be that more jobs are being advertised in NH but are for companies with multiple locations – including NH and nearby states (I think this is not likely to be having much affect), 2) advertised jobs are not being filled because there are not enough applicants companies want to hire – “the skills gap” again (I think this is significant based on conversations I’ve had with companies), 3) the job growth numbers in NH could be revised upward with the upcoming benchmark revisions (I think this is likely but it may not be as significant as I thought a few months ago).

Regular readers know I write too often about the skills gap.  I like the issue because it gets at so many issues of fundamental importance to the future of NH’s and the nation’s economy – education and training, k-12 and post-secondary education, young people and their guidance and direction etc.  The skills gap is most often associated with very skilled scientific and technical occupations but in NH at least, any skills gap may be more pronounced in production and skilled “blue collar” occupations.  Based on the volume of  help wanted advertising in the state since the recession, the demand for those occupations has increased significantly compared to management, financial, business, technical and scientific occupations.

Help Wanted by Occup Since Recession

Despite the large percentage increase in help wanted ads in production and skilled blue collar occupations, employment in industries that employ those occupations has grown little.  It may be that there is a lot of ‘churning” in those industries (some businesses hiring and some contracting) resulting in little net employment gain but the anecdotal evidence (I am reluctant to rely on such evidence but it is the best we have at the moment) is that many businesses who would hire production and skilled, blue collar workers are unable to find individuals to fill their positions.

It has been a relatively recent (over the last several decades) transition for NH to a more technology intensive economy that relies less on production and skilled, blue collar labor.  Once the core of the NH economy it has been a long while since NH was seen a a land of opportunity for those who worked with machines and tools (other than just  computers) and once you have moved on  it can be very hard to go back – even when there is a reward for doing so.


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