The AirTrain Newark project's second cohort in session at Rutgers-Newark.
General Business

Port Authority Trains Small NJ Biz for AirTrain Newark Projects

Instead of relying solely on megacompanies and conglomerates for its big construction projects, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey aims to go to the grassroots. The agency’s major projects include ambitious goals to make use of smaller firms from the community – those led by people of color, women, and veterans.

Now, the agency is looking to build up that pool of smaller firms for its projects, and hopefully build up the region’s small businesses along the way.

The third cohort of the AirTrain Newark Business Training & Capacity Building Initiative will assemble this week at the Rutgers-Newark campus, offered for free to 15 small business owners throughout Essex, Hudson, and Union counties in New Jersey every six months. The wide-ranging, eight-week curriculum will introduce them to the staffing, safety, and legal expertise they’ll need to compete for contracts and to ultimately help build Newark Liberty International Airport’s next-generation people mover, known as AirTrain Newark.

For Anthony Miller, a program manager in the Port Authority’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the goal isn’t just to help these businesses compete for AirTrain contracts. In a larger sense, it’s about strengthening the region’s small business ecosystem.

“We’re not just training, we’re capacity building. That’s different,” Miller said. “Not only are we giving you subject matter that’s critical to helping your business grow, but we’re also bringing you people that can help support you building your business.”

The Port Authority aims to help the communities that will be most impacted by large infrastructure projects through business and employment opportunities those projects offer. For the project to replace AirTrain Newark, the agency requires its primary contractors to commit to good-faith efforts around who receives their contract dollars: 10 percent to local businesses, 20 percent to minority-owned businesses, 10 percent to women-owned businesses, and 3 percent to businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. These hiring goals, while not mandated by state or federal requirements, were approved by the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners and apply to contracts awarded for Port Authority projects.

As they conducted outreach, Port Authority staff noticed the pandemic and other economic challenges had taken a toll on local firms’ ability to demonstrate their expertise and adequately compete. Instead of tempering the agency’s ambitious goals, the Port Authority decided to invest resources into growing the pool of readily qualified electricians, plumbers, and general contractors, among others.

“This is all about creating equity for the communities directly around us,” said Reinaldo Cotto, a Port Authority senior external relations representative who works on the AirTrain Newark replacement project. “We want these business owners to work on their business, not just in their business.”

The education process is especially crucial given the unique elements of the AirTrain project.

“The program was specifically tailored to the scopes of work that we have available on the AirTrain,” Miller said. “An AirTrain isn’t a standard seven-story building with a foundation and brick and mortar. It’s a highly sophisticated electrical train system with a lot of moving parts.”

The program consists of weekly sessions held at Rutgers Business School in Newark. Lessons cover a diverse list of subjects including marketing, project management, job costs, labor agreements, work scheduling, change orders, contract law, and bookkeeping, among others. The courses are offered in partnership with the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, the Rutgers Newark Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, and Integrity Compliance Consulting. Graduation from the program means that these small businesses are prepared to participate in the agency’s competitive bidding process if they see a project they’d like to work on.

Brianna Vasconez participated in the program’s second module in fall 2023 on behalf of her family’s business, BYN Custom Design in Elizabeth. She found the lessons on project managing, estimating, and contract law particularly helpful.

“I feel like those three are your make-or-break, where if you know what you’re doing and you’re confident in what you’re doing, which is exactly what this cohort is trying to teach us, then you have everything that you need under your belt,” Vasconez said.

For Newark small business owner Maritza Guillaume-Emile, the class was a good opportunity to connect with other business owners that were her classmates.

“What’s most important for me is the networking opportunity with business owners that are my peers,” she said. “Even if we have different areas of expertise, there is the potential for collaboration.”

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