Making Manufacturing a Matter of Public Policy for New Jersey

A new ‘manufacturing caucus’ looks to explore what companies need in terms of employees, education, training, and business opportunities — and help make sure they get it

Although not as dominant an industry as it was several decades ago, manufacturing is still a major part of the New Jersey economy, and a sector where a majority of employers have indicated they’re still looking to hire.

To help foster what could be a manufacturing renaissance in New Jersey — a state with a rich industrial history that dates to colonial days — state lawmakers are launching a new “manufacturing caucus” that will focus specifically on figuring out ways to craft policies that lead to increased productivity and growth for manufacturing.

The formation of the new caucus, which will involve lawmakers from both the Assembly and Senate, and from both political parties, was announced last week by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). The panel will hold a series of hearings this summer to help inform a legislative agenda that will be pursued in the fall as lawmakers return to the State House following this year’s legislative elections. The effort will be led by state Sen. Robert Gordon, whose own background includes working in his family’s yarn mill in Paterson.

“I think (manufacturing) is critically important to the state,” said Gordon (D-Bergen) in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “Manufacturing is still a very important component of our economy.”

“I’m very excited about the whole idea,” he went on to say.

Banner year for job growth

The new focus on manufacturing in the state Legislature comes as the New Jersey economy has continued to show slow but steady progress coming out of the Great Recession. In fact, 2016 turned out to be a banner year for job growth in New Jersey. It also comes as President Donald Trump has been promoting a new economic agenda at the national level that seems to favor U.S.-based manufacturers.

The idea of forming a manufacturing caucus in the Legislature also has strong support from the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, which has been working on issues like regional competitiveness and workforce development in recent years.

At one point during the past century, half of the state’s total jobs were in manufacturing, as industries like textiles and telecommunications boomed. And though there’s been a decline since then, manufacturing is still a $38 billion industry in New Jersey, with 8,000 companies employing 250,000 people, according to data compiled by NJBIA. Productivity in manufacturing in New Jersey has also grown by nearly 4 percent annually in recent years, about 2.5 percentage points higher than nonmanufacturing growth, and more than 70 percent of the state’s manufacturers said in a recent survey that they are on the hunt for new employees.

“The state of manufacturing in New Jersey is alive and well — and flourishing,” said Michele Siekerka, NJBIA’s president and chief executive officer.

Critical concern

Gordon said one of the key tasks for the new manufacturing caucus will be to look at the existing state policies and try to bring them up to speed with the latest trends in manufacturing, including an ongoing shift to manufacturing work that’s now highly technological.

“I think it’s important that our public policies do everything possible to create a hospitable environment for manufacturing,” Gordon said. “We need to keep the state competitive with other states.”

Another key issue for the panel to review is job training, Gordon said. The lawmakers will explore ways to better coordinate the needs of the manufacturing industry with the state’s technology universities and county colleges to make sure students are being offered classes that will give them the skills needed to fill the jobs that manufacturing companies want to fill.

“I can see us holding one or more sessions just on what are the educational needs for the manufacturing sector, now and into the future,” Gordon said. “I think we want to strengthen the bonds between academia and manufacturing.”

New-Age manufacturing

That’s also an area of interest for NJBIA, Siekerka said. She’s hoping the panel can draw attention to the fact that the manufacturing sector, with its increasing focus on technology, is very different today compared to what it has been in the past.

Manufacturing jobs are also good jobs in New Jersey, paying wages that are nearly 20 percent higher than those in the fields of finance, insurance, and real estate, and 24 percent higher than the average wage in manufacturing nationally, according to the NJBIA data.

Gordon said he’s still in the process of assembling the new manufacturing caucus, but he’s hoping to get representatives from both parties with backgrounds in manufacturing or small business, or lawmakers hailing from a region of the state that is particularly linked to the manufacturing industry.

“I’m hoping this is going to be a collective enterprise,” he said.

By the time the Legislature reconvenes after the election this fall, he’s hoping the group will have come up with a package of bills geared toward improving the state’s overall business climate for manufacturers. The effort could also lead to a revision of the state’s economic-development tax-incentive programs to give more emphasis to the manufacturing industry, Gordon said.

“I think we can create an economic-development strategy that allows creative people to thrive, and create whole new industries that we can’t even imagine,” he said.