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My Turn: Business relies on public investment in higher education

Ten years ago I moved C&S Wholesale Grocers from Brattleboro, Vt., to Keene. The motivation was to provide a location with an attractive and thriving community for our company and its families, and to have access to a ready pool of college-educated prospective employees. Our plan was to expand our corporate office along with our business. Today, as the largest wholesale grocer in the United States, C&S employs 1,200 in Keene.

We hire extensively from Keene State College’s graduates. They become our information and computer technologists, financial analysts, food buyers, human resource specialists and warehouse food selectors. These graduates have an added value – they are already part of the community and are more likely to stay and make good on the investment we put into their training. For our business, Keene State is a win-win.

I want state lawmakers to know that I share the concerns of educators about the future of a shrinking educated workforce in New Hampshire.

I’m concerned that the state is not adequately supporting its public colleges. I’m concerned that a larger share of high school graduates is leaving the state because it is cheaper to attend college out of state. New Hampshire’s shrinking younger population makes it more difficult to attract and retain a younger workforce.

Hiring and retaining a talented workforce isn’t exclusively a problem for C&S Wholesale Grocers; this is a problem for every large employer and thriving business in the state. We see it as an advantage for our company and others that nearly half of Keene State graduates for the past decade have stayed in New Hampshire.

That’s what businesses want: a pipeline that leads directly to our need for employees.

Beyond lending our voice in support of educating New Hampshire students within the state, businesses have other impacts on maintaining quality public higher education. Our firm and its employees contribute heavily to the educational, recreational, and cultural resources that enrich the Keene community. My family and I helped Keene State College grow a small, regional Holocaust Resource Center into the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies by endowing a faculty position in Genocide Studies and an Educational Outreach Coordinator to work with regional schools. Today that program has a global reach, bringing outstanding speakers and regional educators to the campus and helping recruit students to the only undergraduate degree program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Ten years ago, C&S was asked to contribute to a new KSC Science Center, helping complete a 25 percent match of a state appropriation. Asked why we would be a large contributor to the project, I said, “We’ll hire all the science and math students you can graduate.” As it happens, we compete with many area businesses for students who pursue the academic challenges of science and math.

The point is every state wants science and math students to fuel their state economies. If New Hampshire fails to support a quality system of public higher education, there won’t be a pipeline of these students. If we lose talented future employees when they go elsewhere to attend college, businesses will be forced to go elsewhere as well, to be nearer to them.

Ensuring a pipeline of bright, young college graduates eager to enter the workforce and establish their careers and families in New Hampshire is crucial to the state’s future.

They bring critical new skills, problem-solving and teamwork, and field experiences that a four-year education provides.

Their presence helps attract new businesses and retain current ones.

It would be extremely shortsighted of our state lawmakers to privatize our public higher education. Now is the time to restore the appropriation to the University System of New Hampshire that helps keep New Hampshire students in New Hampshire. C&S moved to Keene in large part because of the presence of Keene State College.

Multiply that many times across the state and the conclusion is inevitable. Public higher education works for New Hampshire.

(Richard Cohen is president and CEO of C&S Wholesale Grocers in Keene.)

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