Camden business leaders understand issues — and are eager to solve them

By Anjalee Khemlani
Camden | Sep 19, 2018 at 6:45 am
On the Beat

A firestorm developed last week in Camden, following perceived broad-brush comments from Holtec CEO Krishna Singh.

Some felt Singh reinforced a longstanding stigma faced by Camden’s residents: That they are not prepared to enter the modern workforce.

But for all the rage and fury — and demands for apologies — there was equal silence from the area’s business community.

Singh isn’t wrong, many said behind closed doors and in private phone calls.

There is a problem trying to find committed workers in a segment of the population, others agreed.

But that, business and community leaders said, should not erase the committed, hardworking segment that is on the ground trying to help the city move forward and succeed.

And the CEO’s comments, they said, could actually help the problem by bringing it to the forefront of discussion.

The problem stems, in part, from a lack of analysis. There is no understanding of the type of talent that is available in the city.

Nichelle Pace, president of Brand Enchanting Media, a Camden-based creative agency, said there hasn’t been a study done on the city in a while.

“With the big businesses coming into Camden, did we even survey the workforce in Camden currently or five or 10 years ago?” she said. “No, we just brought in the businesses by numbers of jobs, not by fit or cultural fit within the community.”

Pace gave an example.

“There’s a lot of creative talent in Camden, but you don’t see a big production shop or recording studio being sought to come into the city, even though we have an abundance of creative professionals and creative talent here,” she said.

Ray Jones, president of the Camden Business Association, said the blame for the problems can be shared by all parties.

As big businesses are creeping into the city, smaller businesses are missing out on the opportunity to collaborate, create partnerships and gain access to become part of the supplier or vendor pool that these companies use, Jones said. Especially as industries follow a trend of supplier diversity.

“We feel like if we can get everyone to participate … that will help the city as a whole,” he said. “Because you’ll hire local businesses, and local businesses hire local.

“There is talent here; there are a lot of talented people here. They have a lot to bring to the table, but we have to get to the table.”

Some big businesses have shown efforts to reach out to the community, but many have failed to market correctly, Jones said.

“They have an outreach, but that might not have gotten to the masses,” he said. “The partnerships and collaborations are what we are talking about.

“We are the grassroots, we’ve been here. We know the city, we know the people, we could have put it out there and could have had better participation.”

That includes using local PR talent rather than New York City or Philadelphia firms, Pace said.

She said that, when it comes to supplier diversity, there is a huge communication gap.

Some companies, including larger ones, have basic or clunky websites, while others simply don’t utilize a public space to put out bids.

“The problem comes when the bid announcements are going through back channels or being emailed around, or some people are still putting bid announcements in the physical paper,” Pace said.

“It’s really bringing everybody current and opening that data up so there is more of a communication flow.”

And it’s a laborer’s market, she said, noting there are more jobs available than people who are unemployed. So, the onus is also in part on the companies to figure out how to train and grow their talent pool.

It’s a point that Singh made — that got lost in the mix: For every person who stays and rises through the ranks, the hope is that they inspire others within the community to do the same.

“It’s more about the larger issue of how do we reach these people … and get them excited about the opportunities that are here,” Pace said. “And that still goes back to the companies internally. It doesn’t matter how ready you make the job force, it matters once you get to the job, how can they retain you.”

It’s a given that the city needs to beef up its workforce development program, Pace said.

Jones said there is still hope, and that everyone needs to be at the table to make it work.

“We’ve got to be able to communicate to do that,” he said. “I think we are going to be fine, but people just got to be willing to partner to find solutions to fix whatever the problem is.”

At the end of the day, the silver lining of the fallout from Singh’s comments is the opportunity to address the issue.

“I think it’s really an opportunity to talk about it,” Jones said. “Our window of opportunity might not be right now, but, because this happened, we get the chance to talk about it. I think it’s going to work itself out.”

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