Nice work if you get to know it

The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program works to fill the skills gap that makes finding qualified employees a difficult job

David Hutter//February 18, 2019

Nice work if you get to know it

The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program works to fill the skills gap that makes finding qualified employees a difficult job

David Hutter//February 18, 2019

What’s so cool about manufacturing?

That question is at the center of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to support manufacturing companies and manufacturing education in New Jersey.


NJMEP Program Manager Michael Marchetti and NJMEP Director of Marketing and Public Relations Peter Okun explained that they work with educators to teach them about the importance of preparing high school students for careers in manufacturing. And they are educating society on the importance of manufacturing. NJMEP is also contacting New Jersey manufacturing companies to provide tours of their facilities to high school principals and guidance counselors.

According to NJMEP, New Jersey manufacturing jobs pay an average salary of $90,540; life sciences jobs average $137,000; Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics jobs $118,000; and transportation, logistics and distribution jobs $72,569. More than 360,000 New Jersey residents work in manufacturing.

“Everything is manufactured — and we take it for granted,” Marchetti said.


In an effort to spread the word, NJMEP is launching a contest in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club of New Jersey for middle school students to create the best videos of manufacturing employees.

“They will ask manufacturers questions,” Marchetti said. “They plan what kinds of questions they want to ask and who they want to interview. They take a fair amount of footage to reduce it to two and a half minutes so there are editing skills to get to the heart of the matter.”

“Other people will vote on the best video,” Okun said. “The MEP centers in Pennsylvania currently have this initiative ‘What’s so cool about manufacturing?’ and it has gone exceptionally well.”

“We were taking some guidance from them and we are all about educating people on manufacturing,” Okun added.

Outdated perceptions

“We have to get young people to change misconceptions that they have received from their parents,” Marchetti said. “The [kindergarten to twelfth grade] school system rewards faculty for getting students into two- and four-year colleges, which is wonderful. But we are saying: Wait a minute. There are other career paths.”

Conventional wisdom holds that U.S. manufacturing has been in a more or less permanent decline, with companies shifting jobs to low-cost locations like China. But in 2011, The Boston Consulting Group suggested that China’s cost advantage in manufacturing was shrinking and predicted that companies would eventually begin expanding capacity in the U.S., Marchetti said.

Mark Cacace, Passaic County Technical Institute supervisor of instruction, has partnered with NJMEP for years introduce students to manufacturing. The institute is a high school that offers a school-to-career program.

“We are required to broaden the minds of students,” Cacace said. “NJMEP has connected us to manufacturers who open their doors to students to shadow their business for a day.

“Students see something as simple as a water bottle is manufactured,” Cacace said. “We are creating career jobs. We are teaching students these are not dead-end jobs. We have pathways for colleges so they can better themselves. NJMEP is coming along with apprenticeships and professional development.”

Patrick Enright, associate vice president for workforce development and Dean for the School of Professional Studies and Applied Sciences at the County College of Morris agrees that manufacturing is a great job market. Yet companies struggle to find skilled workers. “A company has a billboard advertising open jobs with salaries,” Enright said.

Among the challenges for manufacturing is the mental image many students hold of a factory from the 1950s. “One of our efforts is to push out the design of our laboratories to the way we talk to students. We talk about robotics, computer programming, the internet of things and computing codes.”

The County College of Morris created an engineering design and advanced manufacturing program through which high school students take dual credit classes in engineering.

On Jan. 30 the college held a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction on an $11 million Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Center. The building was funded by the state, Morris County and private donors. The facility is scheduled to open in spring 2020.

“In order to make the program work, we hold open houses with an emphasis that this is not your great-grandfather’s manufacturing,” Enright said. “Many manufacturers want someone who understands the machine. A motivator behind our new building is to add to our programs. We describe robotics programming to students. The students need to see robots. We are making sure that what they see is relevant to their world.”

Enright is also recruiting people to switch careers into manufacturing. Many New Jersey residents work jobs that do not pay living wages, health benefits or retirement benefits. Enright says manufacturing jobs are high-paying, offer health benefits and career benefits.

“Our goal is to get into the community of underemployed residents to enroll at County College of Morris, to get into the industry quickly,” Enright said. “You can take a 15-credit certificate program. We are talking with non-traditional age students. So many of these employers will pay for you to complete your degree. Our next initiative is a boot camp-style six weeks like a single apprenticeship.

“We are creating additional on-ramps for people,” he said. “We have people looking for better jobs and companies offering better jobs.”

County College of Morris has two associate degree programs. One enrolls 160 college and 40 high school students in mechanical engineering; another enrolls 80 students in electronics engineering.

Enright asks himself whether there is a common set of skills that will apply regardless of the manufacturing company and its occupational needs.

“The problem with an institution like us is we cannot train three people for a specific company,” Enright said. “We educate 15 to 20 students in one cohort at a time.”

“Our success is because of our partnership with NJMEP,” Cacace said. “Industry is helping us with training.”