Newark has become New Jersey's urban manufacturing laboratory, as the Brick City engages stakeholders from business, government and education to help employers thrive while churning out products from clothing to chemicals, to paintbrushes and mattresses.
A key milestone in the three-year-old Made in Newark movement came in May, with the release of a Brookings Institution study that found Newark has drawn a cluster of diverse manufacturers that benefit from the city's favorable geographic location, as well as its international port, rail and highway connections. But it also pinpointed serious challenges that can blunt Newark's competitive edge: an aging workforce, insufficient investment in innovation and sustainability, and poor participation in regional and global markets.
Brookings fellow Nisha Mistry, a co-author of the report who also is an aide to Mayor Cory Booker, said Newark has a real concentration of manufacturing assets; getting them to perform more efficiently "will require the active involvement of many voices and institutions."
Stakeholders looking to Newark's manufacturing renaissance are hoping their involvement helps accomplish that. Among them are the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which wants to educate the next generation of shop floor leaders, and Rutgers Business School, which is launching the state's first urban manufacturing resources hub through its supply-chain management program; both campuses are in Newark. The state Department of Labor's advanced manufacturing talent network, launched in 2011 at NJIT, is working with all stakeholders, including community colleges and technical high schools, to train a pipeline of manufacturing workers in the skills needed on a computerized factory floor. The Newark Regional Business Partnership also is a major supporter of the city's manufacturing initiative.
That level of involvement was the kind of thing Mitch Cahn envisioned when he helped launch the Made in Newark support group in 2011, with the help of Booker's economic development team.
At the time, "I thought maybe there were a dozen manufacturers in town," said Cahn, who launched his Unionwear apparel company in 1992 and has been in Newark for 12 years, where he now employs 110. When a research effort turned up 400 manufacturers in the city, "I was shocked," he said.
Manufacturers, he said, have found "Newark is at the intersection of inexpensive space and abundant skilled labor." But they tend to underfly the radar, because while they may employ a couple hundred people, they work in nondescript buildings scattered throughout the city.
It's hoped that the partnership with Newark's universities can help power further growth in the sector.
"It's very difficult to hire management in manufacturing, because individuals coming out of engineering schools and business school were not preparing for jobs in the manufacturing sector over the past 20 years," said Cahn, who said his company makes baseball caps, backpacks and other textile products for companies seeking items made in America, including political campaigns, labor unions and the military. "Now that manufacturing is roaring back here, there's a big gap."
The challenge is finding factory managers who understand both manufacturing processes and new technology, he said: "In certain positions, we hire two people — someone with technological expertise and someone with manufacturing expertise — and hope they can work together."
NJIT is eager to train the new factory management, said Donald Sebastian, its senior vice president for research and development. He said NJIT has long been committed to manufacturing: In 1995, he launched the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, which provides consultants to manufacturers to help them boost efficiency, provide training and develop new product lines. Originally housed at NJIT, today NJMEP is an independent nonprofit in Morris Plains.
"We've never stopped beating the drum to get people to understand that we have to be a producer country, and this needs to be a producer state," Sebastian said. "People have gotten back to the business of understanding that we need to make the things that we consume and that we sell, and that innovation is not just about clever products — it's about cleverness in producing those products."
Sebastian said NJIT is considering an undergraduate program to prepare engineers for manufacturing. He said industry is evolving, and factory leaders must be prepared to manage rapid changes in product life cycles.
"Small and midsized companies have to be part of the design process, they have to be part of the innovation and thought process," Sebastian said. Years ago, an auto parts supplier might make the same General Motors part for a decade. "Now, you may be a supplier to three or four automotive manufacturers, and those platforms change on a three-year time cycle — you can't do the same thing over and over and over again."
He said NJIT hopes to convene groups of Newark industrial firms and help them "develop a sense of identity and community, and chart a course for growth."
Gale Tenen Spak, associate vice president of continuing and distance education at NJIT, said the university is exploring ways to replenish the pipe of "technologists" — workers with the training and credentials for advanced manufacturing's computer-driven workplace. One idea is for workers to take "stackable" industry-vetted courses leading to credentials "that are accepted for an associate's degree leading to bachelor's degree. Then, you have the ability for individuals to have that long-term career with a family-sustaining income."
Meredith Aronson, who for the past two years has headed the state's advanced manufacturing talent network, said the Brookings report revealed "food and textiles are substantial and important manufacturing activities in Newark," and recognized that "we are not performing as aggressively as we need to in Newark with regards to exports."
And while it may be difficult to find large parcels of land to locate a factory in Newark, the city could attract high-tech factories that need less space: "I see opportunity for urban or metro-focused manufacturing, because the footprint can be smaller in many cases" and they can tap the urban workforce, she said.
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