“New Jersey is a different place than it was 30 to 40 years ago. I don’t think we’re going to attract a chemical presence anymore, which is what formed a base of New Jersey’s industry before,” said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the state chamber of commerce.
Now the hot industries setting up shop in-state tend toward finance, healthcare, and biotech, he said.
More than 350 biotech industries flourish in New Jersey today, vs. just 80 16 years ago, said Bill O’Donnell, vice president of BioNJ, the state’s trade association for the life sciences industry. Labor boosters view the cutting-edge field that uses live organisms in healthcare products and procedures (as opposed to the pharmaceutical industry, which uses chemicals) as valuable for its use of skilled labor, high earning potential, and potential growth.
In return, the industry rewards New Jersey handsomely, as evidenced by two distinguishing factors: the Fierce Biotech daily industry newsletter named it one of world’s top-five growth markets for biotech, and its $4.8 billion in industry-funded life-sciences R&D ranks it number one in the nation.
But still, it’s not enough. According to O’Donnell, “access to adequate funding remains one of the greatest impediments to growth, especially at the beginning.” He proposed that the legislature create more programs like the Edison Innovation Fund to facilitate venture funding and grants to biotech startups, “if New Jersey intends to remain the medicine cabinet of the world.” Life Sciences and NJ
Johnson acknowledged he needs to better familiarize himself with the role the life-sciences industry could play in the state’s economic future.
“I didn’t realize how big the biotech industry is in New Jersey so of course I’ll be paying attention,” he said.
More so than in other industries, life sciences requires a highly trained workforce and thrives in partnership with universities, where workforce training programs, research, and clinical trials can ideally be conducted in tandem.
Boosters want Trenton to create a database of corporate research taking place alongside the state’s educational institutions to facilitate connections for other companies looking for the same sort of collaboration. As it stands, Michael Klein, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges & Universities, sayid too many clinical trials get outsourced to the “Research Triangle” region in North Carolina.
Klein also urged lawmakers to relax restrictions on state schools that require approval from governing boards that may only meet once per quarter and slow the process of building facilities and creating programs at a time when universities are seeking to establish professional certificates for popular industries as an additional source of revenue.
Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) is calling on fellow committee members to explore job training programs at all levels to ensure that prospective businesses can find the workforce they need in New Jersey.
Whether it’s a pool of highly skilled scientists and engineers or a group of employees who require basic job skills to populate everyday Main Street businesses, Oliver implores fellow lawmakers to examine current workforce development programs and reroute funding to those that offer modern job training. Not doing so could leave companies with a pitiful pool of applicants and wasted public funding for such programs.
“Some of the training on the local level is so antiquated, it doesn’t reflect current needs,” she said of urban workforce development programs, typically funded with federal funds routed through the state. “I do not see a correlation between the amount of money we’re spending and who actually gets those jobs.”
Committee members also said they plan to discuss the need for modern transportation, water, and energy infrastructure to assure companies that their utilities are reliable and not overpriced and that employees can safely and conveniently travel to and from work.
“We are competing with other states and regions and we have to ensure that we’re cognizant of what’s out there and doing all we can to provide incentives to invest in New Jersey,” Johnson said.