Manufacturing has a critical role to play in New Jersey’s economic development and job creation efforts, but we need to move past some outdated perceptions if the state is going to make the most of what manufacturing has to offer. Popular perception is manufacturing is dying. While the cost of doing business is a concern, the innovative and high-tech nature of modern manufacturing has helped make New Jersey and the country more competitive in the global market.
Last year, the United States and New Jersey experienced a manufacturing renaissance. Productivity and output were up, while labor and energy costs were on their way down. Today, our state continues to see a manufacturing resurgence. Productivity has grown about 3.8 percent each year, 2.6 points higher than non-manufacturing annual growth, and exports have grown 34 percent since 2009.
In fact, manufacturers are looking to expand and create jobs, but they held back because of the myth that manufacturing is dirty, dangerous and demeaning.
The myth is rooted in the old image of factories and smoke stacks, but that image could not be further from the truth. Today’s manufacturers utilize the latest technologies to oversee facilities run by computer automated machines in safe and clean work environments. Technological advances such as advanced robotics and digitalized manufacturing allow employees to manage facilities and solve problem by interfacing with computers. Manufacturers create new inventions, redesign products and look for new ways to improve processes.
The myth of manufacturing also impacts its reputation as a career choice. Many perceive this “dirty job” as offering only low-skilled, unrewarding jobs. Again, the perception is inaccurate. New Jersey manufacturers thrive on innovation, which can provide employees with a rewarding work experience. The manufacturing jobs of today pay well but do not necessarily require post-secondary education.
According to the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development, only 48 percent of the manufacturing workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet the industry’s average salary is more than $70,000 a year. New Jersey manufacturing wages are 18 percent higher than wages paid to New Jersey employees in the finance, insurance, and real estate fields.
Despite these advantages, manufacturing suffers from a shortage of skilled workers.
According to the NJBIA Manufacturing Outlook Survey, more than 70 percent of manufacturers are looking for new employees and more than 50 percent say the shortage of workers is slowing the delivery of products to market. Finding new employees with the right skills is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.
The state can create more jobs by focusing resources on training the high-tech workforce. While it is always important to encourage students to go into the STEM fields, policymakers could also help support the creation and implementation of cross-disciplinary education. For example, classes could be structured so that students learn how math and science are applied in engineering or technology settings.
Policymakers should develop strategies to encourage students to pursue high-skilled manufacturing and other technical career tracks. Clear pathways from secondary to post-secondary or through workforce training systems should exist to direct students to this industry or at the least help change perceptions about the industry as a whole.
New Jersey manufacturing is “smart, safe and sustainable.” Modern manufacturing requires a skilled workforce to utilize the latest technologies to compete nationally and globally. It’s time for public perception to meet reality.