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NJ manufacturers identify challenges, solutions for skills gap

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New Jersey manufacturers are struggling with skilled-labor recruiting because neighboring states are offering lucrative financial incentives to woo college grads from the Garden State.

The challenging trend was noted during New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program’s state of manufacturing event in Trenton on Wednesday.

“This is the start of something that we did not know how it was going to turn out,” NJMEP CEO John Kennedy said of the second annual event. “Last year, we hosted 300 [companies] and 65 politicians. The event was not to be a complaint session. It is to have a conversation.”

Kennedy noted NJMEP has formed a political caucus in Trenton to help advance its causes.

“We’ve been so quiet that no one thinks we are still alive,” he said. “Each of the 40 districts in New Jersey has manufacturing.”

Manufacturing jobs pay $90,000 annually in New Jersey, Kennedy said, yet many students do not consider manufacturing jobs.

“Manufacturing contributes $46 billion to New Jersey’s economy,” said Michele Siekerka, CEO of the New Jersey Business Industry Association. “I hear stories about corporate greed, and I say where are you visiting? New Jersey businesses, you are the heart and soul of your communities. We work on the skills gap.”

Siekerka said businesses are dealing with high costs of doing business and recruiting difficulties make the situation worse.

 “New Jersey is the number one out-migrater of 18- to 34-year-olds in the nation,” Siekerka said. “We educate K-12 students and pay the highest property taxes. I suggest that this is not a return on investment.”

The NJBIA has formed a task force of nonprofits, three New Jersey governmental agencies and companies to brainstorm how to retain New Jersey high school graduates and college graduates.

“Think about graduating from college with $30,000 debt and trying to find an apartment in New Jersey,” Siekerka said. “They cannot afford to be here.”

Torsten Schimanski, NJMEP director of professional education and training, said manufacturers are hiring but can’t find qualified employees.

“Because of the skills gap, we engage with employers, students and parents to find solutions that lead to employment,” Schimanski said. “Our mission is to be the feet on the ground, to engage with educational partners to show students there are career paths in manufacturing. We create paths toward talent development to create jobs that cannot be filled today.”

State Sen. Bob Gordon, D-38th District, noted that this meeting was taking place near the famous outdoor sign: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” He said manufacturing remains key to the state’s economic framework.

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-3rd District, noted he founded a bipartisan manufacturing caucus in the legislature to put together the “pieces of the puzzle to see what is wrong.”

Added Sweeney: “We recognize we need to fix manufacturing. We are not providing the educational training we need to develop the workforce.”

The NJMEP will hold a second state of the industry event in Randolph on Friday.

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David Hutter

David Hutter

David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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