Legislators look to revive NJ’s manufacturing sector

If you look just beyond Paterson’s gritty landscape, you’ll see remnants of America’s industrial birthplace, Silk City, as it’s called. It’s where the textile industry dominated the world, the place where Colt manufactured the revolver and Holland invented the submarine.

It’s the reason why Sen. Bob Gordon decided to hold the first meeting of the newly formed Legislative Manufacturing Caucus at the Paterson Museum.

“We as legislators, as policy makers, should be reminded of the great successes that New Jersey had to motivate us to achieve great things once again,” said Gordon. “There’s an opportunity for New Jersey to be a dominant player in manufacturing once again. It’s a different kind of manufacturing. It’s not the textile industry that my family worked in. It’s advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, life sciences, industries we may not even know about yet.”

To do that, lawmakers are getting truncated history lessons on New Jersey’s manufacturing hubs and bringing in industry experts to provide insight.

Donald Sebastian is President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s New Jersey Innovation Institute.

“It’s not just the drug manufacturers, it’s the people who make the equipment, it’s the people who make the raw materials, it’s the whole supply chain. We need to think supply chains,” said Sebastian.

There are more than 10,000 manufacturing businesses that call New Jersey home. But New Jersey’s still among only five states in the country that have failed to grow our manufacturing GDP since the recession.

Before Silicon Valley, Michigan and Pittsburgh, there was Paterson. Now the question is how to harness that ingenuity and bring it into the future.

“We know that one thing holding New Jersey back is not enough mid-skilled workers. Those are employees who haven’t gone to college, but have a couple years of tech training beyond high school. They’re the kind of employees biopharma is looking for,” said Gordon.

“Steven Jobs told Obama he couldn’t make iPhones in America. Not because it was too expensive, but because the people in China were the only ones with the competency to understand how design and build or how to build his designs,” said Sebastian. “So, how do we solve that? We solve that by figuring out how to collaborate to compete.”

Joe Kennedy, the CEO of New Jersey’s Manufacturing Extension Program, told lawmakers other states are investing hundreds of millions in innovation institutes, but New Jersey is barely on the map. And when he puts out an annual survey asking manufacturers what jobs they need to fill, the answers are surprising.

“When you talk about manufacturing, that it’s only somebody that’s running a machine. That’s manufacturing, that’s a manufacturing business. Well, the number one is technical sales, they can’t fill technical sales jobs. Can’t sell it and there’s no reason to build it. Engineer is in the top five, cost accountant is in the top five because remember these are businesses. And of course, C&C machinists, programmers and welders,” said Kennedy.

Industry started in New Jersey because of its natural resources and it stayed for the abundant workforce. It’s up to the lawmakers to come up with enough ideas to transform a new industry.