In Camden, CEO’s comments bring workforce issues to forefront

Many leaders say city, state and companies need to work together better to make sure jobs in the area can be filled properly

By Anjalee Khemlani
Camden | Sep 14, 2018 at 7:18 am

Local leaders in Camden were infuriated by comments from Holtec CEO Krishna “Kris” Singh, who — in an article published on ROI-NJ.com on Wednesday — implied some area workers don’t last long at the manufacturer because they do not have a strong work ethic.

Camden Mayor Frank Moran was among many demanding an apology.

But many community leaders told ROI-NJ on Thursday that Singh’s comments were not completely off the mark — and that Singh was drawing attention to some of the workforce problems in the city.

Darnell Hardwick, president of the Camden County NAACP, and Troy Oglesby, a retired Cherry Hill police officer and current activist in Camden, both said ongoing nepotism could be one of the problems.

“What I believe, the people that do have the jobs, like everything else, is a patronage pitch,” Hardwick said. “Most of these workers are someone that has connections to (politicians).”

Oglesby echoed his comments, saying that some of the first hires at any new company in Camden are likely to be connected to politicians, which is why they take the jobs for granted.

“And, when you feel you get something for nothing, you sometimes end up doing nothing,” he said.

The greater issue, many said, runs deeper.

It is one thing, they said, to bring jobs to an area. It is another to make sure the area can support those jobs.

Hardwick and Oglesby both said the company and the state should have done the market research to know what the labor force looked like, and tailored jobs to meet the skill level available.

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The limited number of high-skilled workers in Camden should not have been a surprise.

In the second quarter of 2016, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia released its Community Outlook Survey, which monitored trends affecting low- and moderate-income households and communities in the Third Federal Reserve District, which encompasses Delaware, southern New Jersey, and the eastern two-thirds of Pennsylvania.

The report, based on responses from about six companies in southern New Jersey, highlights the low-skilled workforce in Camden, and warns of a need to create jobs that match the workforce.

“In the city of Camden, there is a large population of unemployed, low-skilled individuals. The economic development planning and allocation of incentives are targeting firms with jobs that require advanced degrees. This lack of alignment with available workforce will leave few parcels of land available for the development of firms with entry-level, low-skilled labor jobs,” the report said.

“Respondents’ most commonly cited challenge was that, despite generally improving local job markets, many of their clients do not possess the skills or educational credentials required for existing employment opportunities. Examples given of positions that employers struggled to fill included middle- to high-skill jobs in construction, health care, technology and manufacturing.”

In another report, dated September 2015, the Camden-Philadelphia metro area was identified as having 20 to 30 percent of low-wage or non-degree jobs.

“We don’t have people with that skill that in that area, so it’s the wrong type of company to bring in there if you expect to get those workers,” Hardwick said.

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File photo
Holtec CEO Krishna ‘Kris’ Singh.

Perhaps overlooked in his comments that some in Camden do not have the proper work ethic was Singh’s pledge to continue to hire workers from Camden as the company expands.

Singh, during the same interview — portions of which were previously published on ROI-NJ — said that, despite the skill deficit of the city, he intends to train more individuals in order to grow his company — by adding a second plant near the existing campus.

“As we train the workers and create a nucleus of qualified people, we will (be) ready to take on a lot of work. It will all depend on if we are successful in the marketplace,” Singh said. “We are going to put up a small plant here, another plant here, to build industrial grade batteries. They will serve as power stabilizers. So, if you are running a windmill and the blades are not turning, you have the power and the battery will provide the power.”

The same will apply to solar energy, he said, adding that he recently briefed Gov. Phil Murphy on his plans.

“The idea is to put a plant here, in the vicinity of this campus, that’s a light construction manufacturing plant,” he said. “To employ about 100 people. We are hoping to do that in the next year.”

But, in order to do that, Singh has to ramp up the workforce.

Hardwick said that, in light of Singh’s remarks, the local NAACP is interested in knowing more about the issues he faces, to see if the organization can offer any help.

“We are going to write him a letter,” he said. “It gives us the chance to dig deep and see what the problem is. We want all these companies to have some type of incentive for Camden residents first. But there is no incentive for him to hire Camden residents.”

According to the state Economic Development Authority, in order for Holtec to qualify for the $260 million tax break, it needs to hire, and certify, jobs retained or created every year for 10 years. The threshold to qualify was 235 new jobs and 160 retained jobs. In 2017, it had 239 new jobs and 160 retained jobs, according to the EDA.

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John Harmon, CEO and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said that, while Singh may not have been wrong in his assessment of part of his workforce, the issue is that there is a deeper problem in the city and the state.

“We have to think about why we are doing incentives,” he said. “We are doing it because no one will come and build in the city of Camden.”

Harmon said the state and its taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth in giving companies tax breaks.

“As a taxpayer and as a resident of the state, I’m not getting the return on investment,” he said.

Oglesby, who has previously sued the city, said the problem lies in government accountability — especially for recipients of state and federal dollars that are supposed to be used to put low-income people to work.

“The city is not doing a good job of compliance over these type of award contracts,” he said. “The city has the obligation to work with companies like Holtec, that get $260 million, to prepare residents for the qualification of the job specifications needed. They do not do that.”

Harmon said part of that blame falls on the previous municipal administration, which didn’t create a strong relationship with Holtec.

“While the building was under construction, they could have had a workforce readiness training or program,” Harmon said. “(Joe) Jingoli did it in Atlantic City.”

Harmon referred to the efforts on behalf of the developer of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, who also worked with Holtec, prior to the casino’s opening this summer.

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City officials may be upset with Singh. But Singh — speaking before the article came out — said he is happy with city officials. In fact, he said the city has been a great partner.

“The city has been extremely supportive, and I can’t ask for more,” he said. “It’s a good partnership. We’re committed to Camden. We’re going to try to stick it out and make it work. We will do our part and provide gainful employment.”

Singh said the city controls its own destiny.

“The future of any city really depends on the leadership,” he said. “Camden, right now, seems to be doing the right things. Camden is definitely going to come back. We were the first company and we are still the largest private investment here. I’d like someone to become larger than I am.”

His comments were echoed by South Jersey power broker George Norcross, who released a statement Thursday.

“In prior decades, a major problem was how few jobs were available for Camden residents,” Norcross said in the statement. “Now, there are opportunities. We all have an obligation to focus on helping prepare every Camden resident for opportunities that exist today and for the next decade.”

Moran, who was elected mayor in November 2017, issued a statement in response to Singh’s previous comments.

“I don’t condone Dr. Singh’s statement, and we demand an apology,” he said.

“I will hold all companies in Camden accountable and expect them to be community-conscious and responsible partners. I am committed to making sure that prosperity reaches all neighborhoods and people of Camden. Be assured, I will always stand by the good residents of the city of Camden.”

On Twitter, the mayor wrote, “The journey to rebuild Camden requires commitment. I will make sure that prosperity reaches the people of Camden.”

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Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem