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Here’s the good news: Unemployment rates are dropping, both in New Hampshire and the Monadnock region, and the state is soon to recover all the jobs lost after the recession of 2008.

The bad news? Many of those jobs aren’t as high-paying as those that were lost and local employers seem to expect staffing levels to remain stable, at best, during 2014.

“Claims are definitely decreasing,” says Vickie Herrick, manager of the Keene office of the Department of Employment Security. “We’re seeing that downtick. Considering what’s been going on since 2008, we’re in a much better situation now. We’re coming out of the hole.”

Statewide, the unemployment rate dropped last year from 6.5 percent in January to 4.8 percent in November, the latest month for which the DES has figures. For the Peterborough Labor Market Area, which includes Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Hancock, Jaffrey, New Ipswich, Peterborough, Rindge, Sharon and Temple, the rate dropped from 6.6 percent in January 2013 to 4.9 percent in November 2013.

“I expect that in 2014 we’ll finally have the same number of jobs as prior to the recession,” says Dennis Delay, an economist with the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies in Concord. “We’ll be the third New England state to have recovered. Massachusetts was first and I think Vermont will come in ahead of us.”

The problem, Delay says, is that the jobs aren’t as good as they used to be.

“We haven’t seen the recovery in manufacturing or construction,” he says. “We actually have fewer jobs in government than we had three or four years ago. Tourism jobs have come back, but leisure and hospitality is a low-paying job category.”

In a forecast that Delay wrote in November for the New England Economic Partnership, he noted that New Hampshire manufacturing jobs are expected to decrease at an average annual rate of 0.4 percent over the next five years, even though manufacturing output will increase. The private services sector, which includes professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and education and health services, is expected to increase by 2 percent annually over the same period.

Delay says the Monadnock area is more stable than the southern or Seacoast regions in terms of employment ups and downs, but it’s not growing as quickly in the recovery period.

“The population is a little older than the state average,” he says. “You don’t tend to see the same swings in the housing market that you see in the rest of the state. The region has both a number of traditional industries and some new ones, like the medical services industries, that are doing OK.”

The manufacturing perspective

One of those medical services companies is Microspec in Peterborough, which makes tubing used by a variety of customers, especially in the medical devices market.

“That industry is really picking up steam,” says Tim Steele, Microspec’s owner. “In the last three months, we’ve hired eight people. We may add as many as a dozen more in 2014. We’ve done a lot of development work and prototyping that is now beginning to turn into real production work.”

Steele said his company has 54 employees now and he’s been hiring both engineers and hourly production staff.

“We don’t have much manufacturing in Peterborough,” Steele says. “But I think everyone seems to be busier right now.”

At New Hampshire Ball Bearings, Peterborough’s largest manufacturing employer, hiring has increased as business picked up.

“Our facility in Peterborough had a significant number of hires over the past year, including professional, technical and entry-level positions,” wrote NHBB Human Resources Manager Emma Johnson in a recent email to the Ledger-Transcript. “At this point, we have been successful in recruiting and hiring to meet the business demand. Over the last few months business conditions have stabilized, and recruitment is limited to a handful of strategic positions.”

But now NHBB expects staffing levels to remain stable.

“Hiring will be more moderate than the past year, with a concentration on specific strategic positions,” Johnson wrote. “This will allow us to focus on training of new hires and continued staff development, a key component of NHBB’s success.”

NHBB has about 740 employees, primarily full-time, and runs a three-shift operation.

Health care outlook

In his forecast, Delay says the health care sector in New Hampshire is “retrenching,” noting that jobs were cut this year at hospitals in Exeter and Nashua and that Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurance provider, is not including 14 of the state’s 26 hospitals in the plans it offers under the Affordable Care Act. Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough is one of those being left out of the Affordable Care Act network. While Peter Gosline, the hospital’s chief executive officer, says that decision doesn’t affect the hospital’s hiring plans, he isn’t expecting employment to grow this year.

“It’s going to be pretty flat,” Gosline says. “We’re trying to anticipate what will happen next year. We won’t be making any major investments in new services, and we’ll focus on the services we currently provide.”

Gosline, who announced plans to retire last year, will be turning over the CEO reins to Cynthia McGuire in February.

“We’re also working to ensure stability so there can be a smooth transition in leadership,” he says.

The hospital has 538 full-time jobs and employs about 700 people overall, according to Laura Gingras, vice president of philanthropy and community relations.

Gosline says the Anthem decision on its Affordable Care Act network shouldn’t have a big impact on the hospital this year, because the number of MCH patients who will be affected immediately is limited. That could change in the future, but hospital officials are working with Anthem, which still provides coverage for many of the hospital’s patients, and with other major insurance providers to develop strong working relationships.

“They are looking for changes in structure and outcomes,” Gosline says. “They are looking for ways to focus on prevention, to keep people out of the emergency rooms. It’s fairly complex, but it’s a key to success in the future.”

Finding a job

For those who are job hunting, the task can be daunting, no matter what the statistics show.

“In general, I don’t see a change at all,” says Donna Brand, an employment specialist at the River Center in Peterborough who works to counsel job seekers, giving them advice on resumes, interviews and the job-search process. “We seem to be in kind of a holding pattern. The trend of people working fewer hours than they need or want is still in place.”

Brand says she talks to many people in their 50s who aren’t ready to retire and are nervous. Some have experienced unexpected layoffs and don’t feel they have the skills to compete in the job market.

“I think people are finding the process of applying for work more stressful than it used to be,” Brand says. “People are aware of increased competition, and maybe a little intimidated by the online application process, which is the standard now. People who want to apply in person are turned away and told they need to apply online.”

Brand says many employers are flooded with resumes, and applicants don’t get called back one way or the other, which can be very discouraging.

Julie Cashin, director of operations at Masiello Employment Services in Keene, says many local employers are looking for workers.

“We’ve been quite busy,” Cashin says. “People are looking for both temporary workers or temp to hire. We’re seeing quite a bit in manufacturing, a lot of it entry-level but also a lot of high-end skilled jobs, like machinists. There’s a fair amount of office-level and administrative jobs; those are picking up.”

Still, there are far more candidates than jobs.

“And with unemployment benefits ending, we expect to see more,” Cashin says.

In a statement released Thursday, U.S. Representative Annie Kuster noted that more than 1,000 New Hampshire residents lost emergency unemployment insurance benefits at the end of the year. The Congresswoman urged her colleagues to pass legislation extending the program.

Herrick, at the Department of Employment Security in Keene, says it’s difficult to track how many job applicants they have, because many people use the department’s computer-based system from their homes. She says the Keene office recently made a hire of its own, filling a vacant employer service representative job. Having someone working with employers in the community to spread the word about DES services should eventually lead to more job postings. Right now, the Keene Employment Security office is averaging about two new job orders a day, which could be in any category, Herrick says.

Strengths and weaknesses

In October 2013, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies released a New Hampshire Economic Dashboard, which Delay cites in his forecast for the New England Economic Partnership. It’s intended to give a sense of where the state stands on various measures of economic health, ranking New Hampshire in comparison to the other 49 states.

The state ranks highly in a number of areas — it’s number two in home ownership rates, third in pollution abatement, and fourth in both high school graduation rate and voter turnout.

But New Hampshire is dead last in average student debt, ranks 49th in average family premium per enrolled employee for employer-based health insurance and 48th in change in the share of population between the ages of 35 and 44 for the years 2000 to 2010. New Hampshire is 43rd in homeowner costs that are more than 30 percent of income, 39th in percent of bridges deficient or obsolete and 35th in portion of unacceptable rough roads.

Delay describes the areas where the state ranks low as “future-oriented measurements.”

“These measures are directly linked to a state’s ability to attract and retain young people and arm them with the skills they need to compete for good jobs in coming years,” Delay writes, “and thus are of vital importance to the future of the state’s economy and quality of life.”

Sounds like there’s a rough road ahead, in more ways than one.

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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