New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program Strives To Close Talent Gap

While New Jersey expands as a hub for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing, companies are facing a growing talent shortage.

A recent report by McKinsey & Company noted that while the state has high education levels, there is a large “mismatch” between the skills workers have and the ones employers are demanding. John Kennedy, CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, said while the state’s manufacturing sector is strong, the ability to recruit skilled talent is a critical issue.

“I speak to companies every day that need people, people in high-paying career jobs, and they can’t find them. We have to change mindsets and get more people into the industry,” he said.

The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program has been ranked as one of the top MEPs in the country. It has helped create more than $3.6 billion in value and more than 30,000 jobs since 2000. Kennedy said the organization has a number of programs to help manufacturers become more efficient in their production processes, labor utilization and energy consumption. Kennedy said the state is currently home to more than 10,500 manufacturers that employ a total of 358,000 workers.

NJMEP offers workforce development assistance in a number of areas. The organization recently helped Atlantic Casting and Engineering write new job descriptions to hire 10 new employees. It helped Novel Ingredients land a grant to train 79 employees in Lean, Quality Control Technology and Materials Sciences. And it assisted weight and scale manufacturer Henry Troemner LLC to fund additional training for 35 front-line technical, logistical and engineering employees.

“I speak to companies every day that need people, people in high-paying career jobs, and they can’t find them. We have to change mindsets and get more people into the industry.”

Traditional skilled workers such as machinists and welders are in high demand, but there’s also a need for engineers and business support people with technical knowledge, Kennedy said. The manufacturing industry long has been trying to change the common perception that it’s a dirty, dangerous and sweaty industry, and NJMEP is trying to raise awareness through things like Manufacturing Day and its Operation Outreach, which engages legislators.

Kennedy said publicizing that strong job demand and high pay is a good strategy to attract interest. According to state data from 2015, the average salary for workers in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing was $88,700 and $73,880 for pharmaceutical and medicine. “You graduate at 22 with a sociology degree and you struggle to find work…learning something more technical or about business might be a better use of time,” he said.

The tide may be turning and there’s evidence that programs are enticing younger workers to consider manufacturing careers. The problem now is that there’s not enough training in the state, and more than 15,000 students were turned away from trade schools in New Jersey due to a lack of capacity.

In August, state lawmakers created the Legislative Manufacturing Caucus to work over the coming year on legislation that would issue state bonds to fund the expansion of vocational schools in the state. Kennedy said that while educational institutions have been eager to enter into partnerships, there’s often a “surprising lack of input” from the industry. The caucus will help foster more collaboration between government, educational institutions and the industry in an open forum, Kennedy said.

“I’ve been in meeting after meeting over the past few years where there are academics and government people saying they have to listen to the industry, yet there’s no one from the industry in the room. We need to do better. We need the state and manufacturers to get behind it,” Kennedy said.