Manufacturers, legislators discuss industry concerns

John Kennedy said he just can’t make sense of it.

“The average compensation for a New Jersey manufacturing worker is $90,000; manufacturing pays for health care more than any other industry; and there are about 30,000 jobs available right now,” he said. “What are we doing wrong?”

Kennedy, CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, invited more than two dozen manufacturers to the organization’s headquarters in Cedar Knolls last week to participate in a three-hour discussion about workforce development and other issues with the New Jersey Manufacturing Legislative Caucus, which is led by state Sens. Bob Gordon (D-Fair Lawn) and Steve Oroho (R-Sparta).

“We are here to hear from you who are dealing with such issues and impediments every day in your businesses,” Gordon said. “Tell us what you think needs to be done.”

The New Jersey Manufacturing Legislative Caucus was created in September to develop public polices to make the state’s manufacturing industry more competitive.

“With a new administration coming in and a bipartisan willingness to make our state more competitive, we have an interest in hearing about where we may make some positive changes,” Gordon added.

The caucus addressed a number of manufacturers’ concerns, including the lack of available vocational training in specialized skills; the continued stigma of the manufacturing industry; the lack of early education and interest and an aging workforce; the lack of available educators due to increased demand and a smaller workforce; and the continued segmentation of improvement processes.

Here’s what they had to say:

On specialized skills training:

Richard Kurland, president of Handy Store Fixtures in Newark: “My tool and die makers are in their 70s and 80s now, and none of the schools are offering tool and die as a trade. I have the same issue with cabinet work — my whole department is from Italy and Portugal. I don’t think anyone has been trained in this in America for 50 years.”

John Baker, president of General Aviation and Electronics in Hackensack: “I purchased a very expensive piece of equipment about three years ago and was hoping to defray the cost of the acquisition by selling an older piece of equipment. I bought that machine for about $250,000 and was only able to sell it for $15,000. I spend more than that in a few months providing job training for employees. If I could have donated that piece of equipment to a local college — and there are other shop owners who also have equipment which is not in use as much — we could then be better prepared to teach skills to new people which might seem rudimentary but are still very much in demand.”

Scott Mele, president at Tektite Industries in Trenton: “Tool and die making and injection mold building is a highly skilled, well-paid trade — but it takes many years to be able to build up these skills. The reason we are hiring immigrants for these jobs is because they are still very active vocational routes for people in those areas and that is currently the only source of employment we have.”

State Sen. Bob Gordon: “We’ve got a lot of people in this country who at age 50 find themselves out of a job and are ready to try something new. If they can go to their county college down the road while still being able to earn some income for their family and learn another profession that would give them an opportunity to start a new chapter, there may be merit to that idea.”

State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Cranbury): “An often-untapped source of people for these jobs, besides immigrants and younger students, would be former convicts. These are people who are really trying to turn their lives around.”

Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne): “I think a data point that we need to better understand is how the curricula of vocational schools have changed over the last 10 years. We’ve all witnessed a greater concentration on (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), but we need to understand which policies we’ve enacted in Trenton that have encouraged such changes. Now it seems that (some) skills have been eliminated or significantly reduced in the curricula. We invest a lot of money in vocational training already — so, if we’re continuing to invest in a program that will not answer these issues, is that a wise investment?”

On early education and the stigma of manufacturing:

Gail Friedberg, vice president at Zago Manufacturing Co. in Newark: “My concern is that, if we focus our funding on vocational schools, we might be starting too late. When I speak with eighth-graders at career day, none of them are interested in manufacturing, because no one has spoken to them about it. … I think elementary school education about manufacturing is important, because if we don’t get them then, we’re not going to get them in high school or college.”

Paul Harencak, vice president and general manager at The CLI Group in Paterson: “We are not addressing the public perception of manufacturing in New Jersey today. I would like to know what can be done in government to help create a better and more positive perception of manufacturing in New Jersey, much like what New York has done with the commercials they’re now showing on television.”

Scott Mele: “Parents are being told that their children need to go to college. I’m part of a manufacturing working group for the city of Trenton, and I can tell you that, when we’re talking about high schools where 40 percent of students don’t graduate, talking to people about college is a waste of time, especially when I had one tool maker come by looking for a job and a starting salary of $90,000, which is not out of line for someone who is good.”

Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-Randolph): “Many students coming out of college are not finding jobs based on the degrees that they have, and are saddled with a tremendous amount of debt. This is the moment to seize on that opportunity. It must be done, in my opinion, not only through advertising campaigns, but also in our school curricula, so that parents and students are introduced to the manufacturing world at a younger age and understand that it is no longer about working in messy environments for minimum wages. These are skilled technical jobs that pay great salaries and benefits, and they are there for those students who don’t want to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt at college.”

On effecting change at the state level:

Mitch Cahn, president of in Newark: “There are a lot of things that need to come together for workforce development to happen. You need to have the jobs available, which there are; you need young people to want to go into those jobs; you need to have the machinery; you need to have trainers, which we are lacking; and you need to have a process in which to change the curriculum, which often is not explained to us because none of us knows how that occurs.”

State Sen. Bob Gordon: “It seems to me that what we need to do a better job of is creating an intersection of people in the manufacturing community with the people designing the curricula and people within the Labor Department. We need to find better ways in which to formalize that process.”

Mark Biedron, immediate past president of the New Jersey State Board of Education and co-chair of Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s committee on education, access and opportunity: “I think one of the most important things that we can do come January is to create a meeting just like this in which we invite kindergarten through 12th grade educators, higher education institutions and the business community to discuss the disconnect. We have outcomes we are talking about in K through 12 and you have expectations of your employees that are not matching up. … While we at the state do not write the curricula, we do write the standards. All we have to do is change the standards to align with what you need and the districts will write the curriculum to produce that. That will not happen tomorrow — it will take time. But I am very enthusiastic about the next four years because we have a very progressive administration that is ready to do what it takes to make that happen.”

Outmigration of companies and talent

John Kennedy, CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, asked an important question of those manufacturers who had shown up to speak with the New Jersey Manufacturing Legislative Caucus last week.

“By show of hands, how many of you have seriously considered leaving the state of New Jersey?” he said.

Nearly 20 percent said yes.

Brian Neuwirth, president of Unex Manufacturing in Lakewood, said he gets calls at least two or three times a month asking if he would like to move his business to Virginia, Texas or North Carolina.

“They invite us down to show us what they can offer because they know the differentials,” he said. “Their environments are more pro-business than New Jersey is perceived to be at this time.

“What is an enigma in New Jersey is that we have one of the best education systems, a lot of silos out there established to help manufacturing and a great location between two huge markets. We’ve got a lot of good things going, but we must get connected and united on all fronts.”

Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-Randolph) said that popular tax incentives to keep companies here just aren’t cutting it.

“New Jersey has got a lot of benefits, and people are willing to pay a little bit of a premium to be here, but if we continue to put straws on the camel’s back, it’s going to break,” he said. “All of the great things we talk about doing here, between increasing the minimum wage and requiring paid leave, shifts that balance for businesses.

“The only way we’ve been able to correct it in the past is by giving out tax incentives and by giving out tax incentives, we’ve picked winners and losers and have lost revenue. We can’t continue to go down this road because there is not enough revenue left to continue to pay people to stay here.”

Neuwirth said above all, there is a definitive deciding factor whether a company stays in New Jersey or not.

“At the end of the day, it is about the cost of living,” he said. “People are going to vote with their feet.”