At the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program we expend a great deal of time and energy in the days and weeks leading up to National Manufacturing Day because it has become the one day a year that we stop and celebrate an industry that drives our state and federal economies. The problem for me is that the “glow” produced by the day used to linger for a couple of weeks but now it barely lasts until the Monday following the event. You would think after eight years and a growing audience of 700+ and more than 300 companies (in 2019) that the impact would be more enduring.
However, when you consider that we still have to fight for any and all recognition, including significant media attention, then you understand that the boulder still must be pushed up that hill daily. I often wonder what we are looking for.
As a nation, we have spoken about the importance of manufacturing for decades, but then we do little in the way of promotion. We provide billions of dollars to farmers as a means of support (not saying this is not needed or important) but then we balk at funding the MEP National Network at $140 million annually – or – about $500 per U.S. manufacturer. We call it “corporate welfare.”
As a state we struggle to be business-friendly because apparently we cannot grasp the fact that one can be responsive to the needs of the individual and to the factors that drive economic growth. It is not an either/or, and our compatriots in Massachusetts have figured that out already. It always intrigues me when we all like to talk about high-paying jobs, but then ignore the fact that they can easily go elsewhere without the culture to nurture them.
As educators we have convinced ourselves that a college degree is the only path of value. We ignore the rest of the world, and the facts: about 60 percent of us do not graduate with a degree. We look at those among us who chose an alternative path as failures. We truly continue to believe that all of us can select a career at age 18 – then again at 22 – and stick to it for as long as we work.
As parents we want the best for our children, but we have been sold on the critical importance of a college degree, including the “college experience.” Any degree – at any cost. We forget our own pathways as we evolved as a person and in the workforce. We ignore the options provided through county colleges, industrial schools and apprenticeships that can lead to a wealth of knowledge and to a solid career. One size does not fit all.
As individuals we have bought into the “paper chase” and we strive, not for a degree that supports our lives and careers, but the one that provides the least resistance. We sell ourselves short in order to move on, but not always upward. When the going gets tough, change your major.
None of these observations is meant to denigrate anyone. We have a community filled with amazingly intelligent and capable people, but when we get caught in a loop that does not provide answers, we begin to look for those to blame. That gets us nowhere.
The fact is that there are many viable industries in New Jersey that provide paths to solid careers and the Garden State needs all of them moving forward to be financially healthy. They include finance, retail, tourism, health care and – yes – manufacturing and STEM.
I tend to laugh when so many people who are much smarter than I am tell me that we have to “sell” the manufacturing sector to parents and kids. Now, here is an industry that features cutting-edge technology, pays an average of $90,000 per year in salary, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, ranks number one in health benefits and other perks and lists more than 30,000 open positions in New Jersey alone. We should be turning people away.
The manufacturing and life sciences sectors combined include more than 11,000 companies in New Jersey, employ 380,000 individuals and generate nearly $100 billion in annual revenues. Add the STEM firms and the supply chain/logistics entities and the vocational impact reaches more than 1 million people.
I’ve gotten in trouble over the last few years when I say that one of the biggest fibs we tell our children is that they can be anything they want to be. They cannot. But that’s OK because one can follow so many avenues to personal fulfilment and career success in New Jersey. I am not advocating for disparaging dreams, but to use them to create a foundation that can lead somewhere positive. You might be surprised at the avenues that you never even thought of taking. Believe me, I never thought that I’d spend 30+ years in the material handling industry when I first graduated, but it gave me a wonderful career.
The next National Manufacturing Day will be on Oct. 2, 2020, and NJMEP (led by our CFO, Lynore DeSantis) has already begun preparing. I suspect that my thoughts will remain the same as they are today, but that is not going to stop me from trying to convince industry executives, government officials, educators and the community at large that everyone should join together and create a new order in our state.
Until then, what are we looking for…really?
John Kennedy is the chief executive officer of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.