Fast-growing Upper Valley companies are hiring more Millennials. Is there life for them here?

Joelle Lang and Tommy Bauch

Sometimes, when Tommy Bauch and his wife take their young daughter back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they grew up, they go to the top of the state capitol. It's a high-rise, the tallest state capitol in the country, with a commanding view over the city -- and the petrochemical plants that disappear into the distance along the Mississippi River.

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"It is just Dow, Exxon, then plant plant plant," Tommy says. "My dad died of cancer at the age of 41. We had all the benzene you could breathe."

So it's not much of a surprise that he took pretty quickly to this region. "I didn't grow up in pine trees and snow," he says, "but when I go back and see that, it's like, 'I'll see you guys in Vermont!'" 

Joelle Lang works with Tommy at Geokon, on the edge of downtown Lebanon. She did grow up here -- in Lebanon. Sticking around the Upper Valley was about the last thing in her plans after high school. "When you reach your early 20s, it can be kind of boring here," she says. "There’s no night life. It’s absolutely nothing like living in a city."

Yet as the Upper Valley's tech community expands--with some companies seeing rapid growth--it's drawing a lot of people like Joelle, a local who's a couple of years shy of 30; and Tommy, a transplant a couple of years shy of 40. Despite their different likes and backgrounds, both have found the Upper Valley a congenial place to settle. Before we get to why, though, it might be helpful to know just what Geokon does. We'll let Tommy start off.

"We're a manufacturer of geophysical instrumentation," he says.

Then adds: "I know, that sounds terrifying."

Tommy Bauch and some of Geokon's wired rebar

Actually, the idea is pretty straightforward -- and quite cool. Inside everything Geokon manufactures is a wire that can be made to vibrate. Anchor one end in the ground, embed the other end in a building or structure that shouldn't be doing any shifting around -- a dam, say, or a bridge or a mine -- and you can then measure even the slightest movement.

"It's like a guitar string," Joelle explains. "When the string is 'plucked,' you'll get different frequencies depending on how it's designed and the forces acting on it." It's tech -- but of a highly practical sort. Which is a big reason Geokon's got over 1000 customers working all over the globe -- including in the Arctic. 

Joelle started out when she was 19, during summer vacations from college. Her dad had taught her to solder, which landed her a job doing assembly. After school, she just... stayed. First in design, then, for the last 6 years, doing sales. "It sounds cheesy," she says, "but I’ve basically grown up at Geokon. And I don't even think it's strange to be in the Upper Valley anymore. It fits my lifestyle. I love animals. I have goats -- you can't have goats if you live in Boston -- and I snowshoe and hike with my dog a lot: the Thetford Academy trails, the trails in Lyme, Cardigan and Ascutney, Smarts... And I love Moosilauke!"

Joelle Lang and Geokon's pressure cells, which measure the force of the earth.

Tommy took a more circuitous route. For a guy who flunked out of Louisiana State University -- he swears there are 17 Fs on his transcript -- he's come a long way. He put in 6 years in the Navy as a nuclear propulsion engineer, went back to school to get a mechanical engineering degree, then moved here with his high-school sweetheart--now his wife--after she got a job as a psychologist at the VA hospital in White River Junction. He went to work as an engineer at Darn Tough, the sock manufacturer up in Northfield, VT. "I drove 110 miles a day, and didn't mind it at all," he says. "That drive was gorgeous. The Bethel-Royalton bend on I-89, every single morning with the sun coming up? It was beautiful!"

He's been at Geokon since last summer, hired to help them re-engineer. "I’m the introspection on our manufacturing process," is how he puts it -- mapping out what exists now, identifying bottlenecks, asking how things can be improved ergonomically, or to produce better quality, or to increase throughput, and then figuring out how to train employees so they can help drive improvements, too.

There are times when it seems like every young tech worker in the Upper Valley spends his or her free time skiing down mountains or summiting the Presidentials, so before you jump to conclusions about Tommy, you should know that he, too, loves the outdoors... through a window. "I’m aware that people hike," he says. "And I see people cross-country skiing on the Quechee green. It looks nice. But I have no desire to do anything that involves cardiovascular. I am a professional appreciator of the outdoors. What I love about here? There's no traffic."

And, it turns out, that there's a lot to do. "There’s just so much culture that people have worked very hard to create for residents in the Upper Valley," he says. "With Woodstock and Hanover there’s this outpouring of stuff to do. I’m at every single baby animal day at Billings Farm, patting the animals--and I let my daughter come with me. I could be happy closing every day out at the Norwich Inn, a 250-year-old inn, a euro-brewery that, no lie, pipes beer in from next door. I’m a simple man: A burger and beer and my needs are met. If they had a pool table I’d be there every night."

Still, says Joelle, life here isn't for everyone. "You have to know enough about yourself to know what you want to fill your time with," she says. "Because if you can't do that, you’ll end up holed up in your house feeling isolated. And it’s not as easy as meeting people in a city at all. And there’s that northern mentality, too."

"True," says Tommy. "It ain't the South."


The Tech Valley blog is the work of Story Kitchen Creative. It is published under the auspices of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and paid for by the City of Lebanon.

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