Follow your dreams (but please come back): Why young people leave the Granite State and what workforce experts are doing to keep them here

By Sarah Earle

Part One of a Two-Part Series

“Pathways” has become a buzzword of late in the world of education. Increasingly, educators and policy makers are recognizing the value of connecting students to clear, individualized career goals starting at an early age. 

The primary focus of such initiatives is student success. But where those pathways lead is a matter with broad-reaching implications: New Hampshire’s livelihood depends on keeping and attracting young people.

If it’s a critical question, it’s also a complicated one. The reasons young people stick around or leave the state are numerous, and they vary widely from person to person. 

Same town, different outlook

Brooke Hurlburt and Maddy Wood are both upperclassmen at John Stark Regional High School and both live in Weare. One is content to stay here long-term. The other is ready for a change.

Hurlburt, a senior, moved to Weare to live with her aunt and uncle during her freshman year.

“When I moved here I didn’t think I’d go to college,” Hurlburt said. 

Unsure about what she wanted to do as her senior year approached, Hurlburt decided to give her high school welding program a try in spite of her uncertainty about going into a male-dominated field. 

“As soon as I started, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “My mind went clear and I was able to focus on just that. … I was always excited to go in for the next class.” 

Hurlburt plans to go to Manchester Community College in the fall, commuting from home and keeping her part-time job at a local store. She comes from a town in upstate New York that’s even smaller and quieter than Weare, and she loves what New Hampshire has to offer. She’s already researched the job field here in the state as well and is confident in her prospects. 

Brooke Hurlburt

Wood, a junior, has lived in Weare her whole life. She likes her town, her school, and her state just fine. “It’s been a pretty good place to grow up,” said Wood, who wants to study either human services or education and credits her teachers with sparking that interest. 

She’ll likely start her schooling at a community college to save money and stick around New England to finish her four-year degree, but then she hopes to spread her wings. 

“My plan has always been to stay in this general area for college, then I’m planning to move out of the U.S.,” she said.

Aspirations and perceptions

Ask a sampling of young people to discuss how New Hampshire fits into their future plans, and you’ll get a wide assortment of answers, as well as some common themes.

Practical considerations drive many young peoples’ decisions. Students who stick around New Hampshire often do so to save money at a community college, or because they’ve already found a career path in the state through Career and Technical Education or a work-based learning program. 

“I would wager a good bet that students who participate in a CTE program stay in New Hampshire,” said Carolyn Eastman, Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative. 

Ideals and values figure strongly into their plans as well. Many would like to live near their families — but that doesn’t mean they feel compelled to stay within the border of the state.

Gen Z-ers are not immune to the charms of the snowy woods or quiet pastures Robert Frost extolled, but many of them find more densely populated, diverse areas appealing. 

“Geographically, New Hampshire is really nice,” said Alex Hartofelis, a 2018 graduate of Merrimack Valley High School who’s now studying music education at the University of Hartford. “But since I’ve been going to college out of state, I’ve really been exposed to the possibilities. I found myself to be really enamored with city life.”

In interviews with Reaching Higher, some young people said they believe their job prospects are better in big cities, too. Others were optimistic about their job prospects here in the state.

WEBINAR: Higher Education Roundtable hosted by the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness

Student perceptions about career opportunities aren’t always based on sound research, said Kathi Terami, Executive Director of Careers CLiC, a Hanover-based non-profit. A large component of her work involves making sure students know about the job opportunities in their region by teaching them skills such as reading labor market data.

Inaccurate perceptions go the other way, too. Employers don’t always understand young people’s values and priorities, said Terami, who also conducts employer training sessions around work-based learning, transferable skills, and labor laws. 

“Gen Z right now is all about making a difference, being creative, being flexible,” she said. “If workplaces know how to tap into the values of each generation, they can accommodate them.”

Positive signs

Along with educating young people about the opportunities available in the state, Terami is trying to combat what she believes is a harmful misconception: that young people are leaving the state in droves.

“People tend to perpetuate myths about ‘brain drain,’” Terami said. “Young people, when they hear those messages, whether they are accurate or not, it really affects the choices they make and how they feel about a place.” 

Though it’s true that New Hampshire’s population is declining and that the state’s demography skews older, in reality, more young people are moving to the state than are moving out. Over the past four years, an average of 8,000 more young people have moved into the state than out, according to 2020 Census data.

Terami believes a lot of those people are residents who moved away for a time and returned. While there isn’t much detailed data on in-migration and out-migration, Terami has a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that many of the young people spreading their wings now will one day be back.

In 2014, Careers CLiC conducted an alumni search following up with young people who had participated in its programs. “We found people who went off to college and stayed where they went off to college for a few years … and then came back to New Hampshire to raise their families,” (bringing spouses with them), Terami said. “We get a lot of stories like that.”

Kayla Provencher, Reaching Higher’s new Public Policy Researcher, knows exactly what Terami is talking about. While attending Manchester Central High School, she heard a lot about the benefits of attending community college to save money, but she was eager to experience something new. 

Kayla Provencher

“As an 18-year-old in high school, New Hampshire just seemed too small and I needed to break out,” said Provencher, who graduated in 2016 and went on to study education at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. Many of her friends also fanned out to colleges around New England and down the East Coast. 

Provencher planned to stay in Massachusetts to teach, but the pandemic forced her back home for the spring semester of her senior year. 

“The longer I was here, the more I reflected and felt comfortable staying,” said Provencher, who’s now pursuing her master’s degree at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. “Because of the pandemic, many of my friends in the class of 2020 came back and have decided to stay.”

Provencher doesn’t regret her choices but is happy that circumstances drove her back here. “I feel like leaving New Hampshire gave me the opportunity to grow and learn about who I am,” she said. “Now that I have created a foundation for my career and learned about myself I am content with being back in New Hampshire and working. I don’t know if I am going to stay here the rest of my life, but especially in the time of a pandemic, New Hampshire has been my home and I am young and excited to grow even more here.”

The remote work movement created by the pandemic has also opened up new possibilities for young people, Terami said. 

“What will that look like and be like?” she said. “We just don’t know yet.” 

Coming tomorrow: Students from one NH high school share their future goals and defining moments along their career pathways