Manufacturing Day: Saluting those who kept N.J. running, and promising to do more going forward

John Kennedy is never shy about giving credit where credit is due.

On Friday, at Manufacturing Day 2020, the annual salute to the state’s manufacturers by the organization Kennedy heads — the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program — Kennedy gave thanks to all the manufacturers out there.

And the number may surprise you.

“People get stunned when I tell them that there’s about 11,000 manufacturers in the state of New Jersey, and they hire about 380,000 of us,” he said during the virtual event.

These are essential workers, he reminded everyone. The ones who not only produce a lot of what we buy, but almost always the containers or packaging it comes in.

That never stopped, Kennedy said, because manufacturers never stopped going to work.

“These guys quietly went to work and stayed at work,” he said.

In fact, Kennedy said, manufacturers only spoke up about one thing: the safety of their people.

“It’s not an easy thing, going to work when you’re concerned about your health or your family’s health, but they did it,” he said. “I will tell you that almost every email and phone call that I have received during the past six months always starts with ‘How can I protect my people?’

“That’s really pretty amazing because they understand firsthand that no company exists without a good team.”

The recognition came from more than just Kennedy.

Gov. Phil Murphy said manufacturing has been a key component for helping the state emerge from the pandemic. Murphy said manufacturing is a key to the state’s future.

“You’ve been essential to our state’s response,” he said. “In fact, New Jersey’s manufacturers and your employees have been among the unsung frontline heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic. And by continuing to work together, we can do more to reposition our state for long-term growth and success.

“One of our shared priorities has been to ensure that New Jersey creates the skilled workforce that the future of our manufacturing sector will rely upon. I am proud of all we have done together to make New Jersey a national model for apprenticeships and job training. And I look forward to continued progress together.”

Make no mistake about it, that progress will not come easily.

While the state is hoping to bring more manufacturing in — bring more of the supply chain to American soil — New Jersey must do more to fix a glaring problem: There is not a next generation of workers prepared to do these jobs.

Michele Siekerka, the CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said as much.

“I am so proud of our New Jersey manufacturers who have stepped up during COVID-19 to tweak their manufacturing facilities in order to deliver needed resources, products and services at a time of crisis,” she said. “We know New Jersey manufacturers are able to pivot on a dime. And that was so much proven over the last six months.

“Now, we need to step back and make sure that we are finding all the resources and support that you, our manufacturers need.”

It’s all about jobs, she said.

“At NJBIA, we wake up every day to create new jobs here in the state of New Jersey and to ensure a future workforce to fill those jobs,” she said. “We know the challenges of filling those jobs for our manufacturing facilities, when, even pre-COVID, we had tens of thousands of vacant positions, because we lacked the proper skillsets in our students who were coming to build those jobs.”

That concern, however, is for tomorrow.

Kennedy said Manufacturing Day was about celebrating those who helped the state get to where it is today. The people who made sure everyone had food, water, gas, electricity, he said.

No one in New Jersey went without, Kennedy said.

“So, while I’m all for everybody calling out and shouting out to the medical professionals, the first responders, the people at the grocery stores and so many others, I asked you today to not forget the unsung heroes, and that’s who we’re honoring,” he said.