State Senate President Steve Sweeney wasn’t afraid to admit it: When John Kennedy, the CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, first approached Sweeney about creating a manufacturing caucus, Sweeney didn’t understand why it was needed in New Jersey.
He didn’t understand why it was even relevant.
“I was like, ‘Manufacturing in New Jersey: Where is that?’” he said. “Only to find out how many thousands upon thousands of jobs are actually involved in manufacturing in New Jersey.”
Sweeney (D-West Deptford) told the tale during a virtual State of the State of Manufacturing in New Jersey on Thursday — one of three such virtual events NJMEP has planned for the year.
It’s a way for manufacturers in the state to speak with their elected officials — explain to the uninformed what they need to know.
By the end of the day, 32 legislators came on to hear about the sector. They could have just listened to Sweeney. Years later, he has become one of the sector’s biggest supporters.
“It’s a critical industry that we want to continue to find ways to support,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, educating people like myself, to understand what manufacturers go through. And the fact that I didn’t realize it was such a large presence when I started.”
It’s only growing.
With the backing of Sweeney and many others, New Jersey is taking the lead on what figures to produce a next generation of manufacturing: offshore wind.
“When we talk about this clean energy economy, we’re talking about manufacturing,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney said he has been thinking about the manufacturing aspect for nearly a decade — when the first talk of the offshore wind energy came up. It’s paying off.
“I’m thrilled that, after several years of pursuit, we were able to get a German manufacturer company called EEW (to come here),” he said. “They’re going to produce monopiles in the port of Paulsboro.”
That likely means 500 jobs.
Then, there are the plans to build a massive wind port facility in Salem County that hopes to become the supply chain leader in the sector. Sweeney said the state wants to make a place to manufacture wind turbines, too. All of this lead will lead to thousands of jobs.
And create thousands of jobs because of those jobs.
“Parts people like to locate close to where you’re going to assemble,” he said.
Sweeney said he’s determined to make sure the new sector is driven by parts manufactured in New Jersey — and installed by workers from New Jersey.
“I love the idea of offshore wind,” he said. “But, it’s always been about jobs.”
It’s why Sweeney has passed legislation mandating products be built here.
“We had a war to ensure that manufacturing comes to the United States,” he said. “This is a European industry right now — and they didn’t want to come here.”
Sweeney said he’s working to change the supply chain. And not just for offshore wind. He wants personal protective equipment produced in New Jersey, too. We need to change our dependency on other countries, he said.
That starts with changing the perception of manufacturing in New Jersey.
Sweeney said he’s all in. He thinks everyone should be.
“Manufacturing is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” he said. “Manufacturing is all about jobs, making lives better, creating more opportunities.
“I’m looking for more manufacturing in New Jersey, not less.”
That starts with listening. It starts with days like Thursday.
“We need to listen to the people that are actually heavily involved in manufacturing to ensure your voices are heard, so that we can craft legislation at the end of the day that makes it a little bit easier for you,” he said. “New Jersey, as we know, is a very difficult state to do business.
“(We need to) sit down and collaborate and have conversations, so we can find better ways to advance and move forward.”