Unsung Heroes: NJMEP’s Kennedy hopes virtual Manufacturing Day will build real pipeline for industry

John Kennedy, the CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, speaks with a couple of students who attended the event.

John Kennedy is thrilled that more than 1,000 people have registered for Manufacturing Day, which will take place — virtually — this Friday.

He’s thrilled that the manufacturing sector, which he advocates for as head of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, has remained top of mind.

The only thing missing is this: a pipeline of the next generation of workers for the industry — one of the few remaining that can provide a career path for a solid spot in the middle class.

“There’s not enough people, period,” Kennedy told ROI-NJ. “There’s no pipeline into the industry that sets up a career path.”

Kennedy and MEP have been working to solve this problem for years. Their latest effort is Project 160, which was born out of CARES Act money MEP’s national organization was able to get.

MEP is looking for 160 applicants to go through a five-week program that will result in a national credential from MSSC, or the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council. It’s the credential — earned by passing four exams — anyone entering the manufacturing sector needs.

MEP is looking in urban areas — Newark, Paterson, Trenton, Camden and Atlantic City. And, while applicants do not need to have a post-secondary degree to enroll, it’s not a layup to get into the program.

“You’ve got to be able to pass basic math and mechanical to be accepted in the program, because you need those to be able to pass the program,” Kennedy said. “We don’t want people coming in and failing.”

Kennedy said more applicants are rejected than accepted, but those who get into the program have more than just a job — they have a career path, he said.

Once applicants get through the course, they are eligible to join one of the apprenticeship programs MEP has set up with the Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

From there, Kennedy said, the opportunities in manufacturing are endless — especially at a time when so few people are trying to get into the sector. Kennedy, who has owned and sold two manufacturing companies, always praises the opportunities the industry provides.

While entry-level jobs start at between $12-$15 an hour, Kennedy notes they start out with health benefits, overtime and paid vacation. And they can quickly lead to a lot more money. The average person in manufacturing made more than $90,000 last year, Kennedy said.

“We need to rebuild that pipeline, because these are high-tech jobs,” he said. “This is an opportunity to get in at the ground floor and then work your way through the programs and the career path. Companies would likely help people get an associate degree and a four-year degree, but they need to see that individuals are willing to go the extra mile.

“That’s how we need to rebuild the pipeline.”

Read more from ROI-NJ: How Manufacturing Day will be different — maybe better — this year

The time is now. Manufacturing has never been hotter, Kennedy said.

“I think there is a renewed interest right now,” he said. “We started hearing about manufacturing and supply chain because of shortages in (personal protective equipment) and toilet paper.”

Kennedy worries the notice will be short-lived. Ironically, the manufacturing sector may be its own worst enemy in this regard.

“If we were still out of everything — if the shelves were empty — you certainly would be hearing about manufacturing and supply chain,” he said. “Manufacturing rose to the challenge.”

The industry, Kennedy said, exemplified the theme of this year’s Manufacturing Day: Unsung Heroes.

“There are a lot of unsung heroes,” he said. “It’s not just the first responder or a medical professional, it’s the person who works at Quick Chek or the grocery store who showed up every day, so that I could go in and buy coffee or food for my family. And it’s the manufacturers that kept those products coming.”

Kennedy concern is that the efforts of these folks soon will be forgotten.

“The problem with manufacturing is that it’s very much an easy transition to push them to the background again,” he said. “That’s not going to fix our supply chain problems. That’s not going to fix our state and federal economies.

“We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t live on the service industry alone. We have to have manufacturing, and we’ve got it here. We just got to use it. But we’ve also got to feed it.”