Manufacturing sector can play big part in N.J.’s future — it’s time to recognize that

At the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, we expend a great deal of time and energy leading up to National Manufacturing Day, because it has become the one day a year that we stop and celebrate an industry that drives (both) our state and federal economies.

The problem is that the glow produced by the day used to last a couple of weeks. Now, it barely lasts until the Monday following the event. You would think that, after eight years and a growing audience of more than 700 attendees representing more than 300 companies, the impact would last a bit longer.

However, when you consider that we still have to fight for any and all recognition, including significant media attention, then you understand that the boulder still must be pushed up that hill daily. I often wonder what we are looking for …

  • As a nation, we have spoken about the importance of manufacturing for decades, but, then, we do little in the means of promotion. We provide billions of dollars to farmers as a means of support (not saying this is not needed or important), but then we balk at funding the MEP National Network for $140 million annually — or, about $500 per U.S. manufacturer. We call it “corporate welfare.”
  • As a state, we struggle to be a “business-friendly” entity, as we cannot grasp the fact that one can be responsive to the needs of the individual and to those that drive economic growth. It is not an either/or, and our neighbors to the north, Massachusetts, have figured it out already. It always intrigues me when we all like to talk about high-paying jobs, but then ignore the fact that they can easily go elsewhere without the culture to nurture them.
  • As educators, we have convinced ourselves that a college degree is the only path of value. We ignore the rest of the world, and the facts (about 60% of us do not graduate with any degree). We look at those among us that choose a (now) alternative path as failures. We truly continue to believe that all of us can select a career at age 18, then again at 22 … and stick to it for as long as we work.
  • As parents, we want the best for our children, but we have (only) been sold on the college degree … including the “college experience.” Any degree — at any cost. We forget our own pathways as we evolved as a person and in the workforce. We ignore the options provided through county colleges, industrial and vo-tech schools and apprenticeships, all of which can lead to a wealth of knowledge and to a solid career. One size does not fit all.
  • As individuals, we have bought into the paper chase, and we strive, not for a degree that supports our lives and careers … but the one that provides the least resistance. We sell ourselves short in order to move on, but not always upward. When the going gets tough; change your major.

This isn’t meant to denigrate anyone. We have a community filled with amazingly intelligent and capable people, but, when we get caught in a loop that does not provide answers, we begin to look for those to blame. That gets us nowhere.

The fact is that there are many viable industries in New Jersey that provide a true path to a solid career, and the Garden State needs all of them moving forward to be financially healthy. They include finance, retail, tourism, medical and health-related fields, and, yes, manufacturing and STEM as well.

I tend to laugh when so many people (that are much smarter than I am) tell me that we have to “sell” the manufacturing sector to parents and kids.

It is an industry that is cutting-edge in regard to high-tech workplaces, pays an average of $90,000 per year in salary (taken from the National Association of Manufacturers State Facts), is No. 1 in supplier health benefits and other perks, and has over 30,000 open positions in New Jersey alone. We should be turning people away.

When you look at the manufacturing and life sciences sectors together in New Jersey, you find more than 11,000 companies, 380,000 employees and almost $100 billion in annual revenues. If you add in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics firms and the supply chain/logistics entities … the vocational impact reaches over 1 million people.

One comment that has gotten me in trouble over the last few years is when I state that one of the biggest fibs we tell our children is that they “can be anything they want to be.” They cannot, and that’s OK, because one can take so many avenues toward personal fulfilment and career success.

I am not advocating for disparaging dreams, but to use them to create a foundation that can lead somewhere positive. You might be surprised at the avenues that you never even thought of taking. Believe me, I never thought that I’d spend 30-plus years in the material handling industry when I first graduated, but it gave me a wonderful career.

The next National Manufacturing Day will be Oct. 2, 2020. And NJMEP (led by our standout chief financial officer, Lynore DeSantis) already has begun preparations. I suspect that my thoughts will remain the same as they are today, but that is not going to stop me from pushing this narrative toward extreme gratification — one where all aspects of industry, government, education and public communities come together and create a new order in our state.

Until then … what are we looking for?

John Kennedy is CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.