“Everything about manufacturing involves math, but many students in the U.S. are lacking when it comes to those skills,” cautioned Peter Connolly, CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program. “A person that can’t read a tape measure or do simple computations cannot be on the shop floor,” he said. “And higher-level skills are necessary for the many advanced manufacturing jobs that are opening up.”
He’s not the only one sounding the alarm. A report released in June by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics noted that average math scores for 13-year-olds fell 9 points compared to the previous assessment, which was administered during the 2019–20 school year. The numbers are even worse compared to a decade ago, with a 14-point drop.
In a bid to boost those scores, NJMEP is working with a number of New Jersey educational institutions, including Essex County Community College, to offer opportunities like Registered Apprentice Programs. Students enrolled in the NJMEP Industrial Manufacturing Production Technician Registered Apprenticeship Program, for example, can earn up to eight credits through their time with NJMEP and can continue their education in Essex’s A.A.S in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Technology program. Designed by Essex College in partnership with NJMEP, apprentices will potentially only need to complete a total of 50 credits, instead of 62, to receive a degree in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Technology.
And in August, at the South Jersey Revitalization Summit, NJMEP partnered with Rowan College of South Jersey, the County College of Morris, local business leaders, and state Sen. Michael Testa, R-1st District, to discuss plans to build a 25,000-square-foot manufacturing technical training facility at RCSJ. “This event shows the eagerness of industry, NJMEP, government, and higher education to reinvest in South Jersey,” according to Connolly. “NJMEP previously worked with the County College of Morris to establish CCM’s Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Center, and we look forward to replicating that success in South Jersey.”
Manufacturing companies also need to step up to relieve employee shortages, Connolly said. “Immigrants can help fill the gap, but even as they’re taking ESL [English as a Second Language] courses, company managers and supervisors can also take Spanish as a second language to help their employees with the transition.”
Education is an answer to the skills gap, according to Souran Manoochehri, a professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology.
“We have been introducing and expanding courses to cover the skills needed for advanced manufacturing,” he explained. “At Stevens, we’ve added programs like a graduate-level Additive Manufacturing certificate, which takes students through the entire additive manufacturing, or 3D process, including CAD modeling and design for additive manufacturing, 3D scanning and file processing, support generation, machine and material selection, print process optimization, and an overview of the basic economics of additive manufacturing. Students also get hands-on exposure to many of the technical aspects and applications of additive manufacturing through several projects, as well as practical experience in machine operation and maintenance tasks, such as machine setup and post-processing operations.”
Stevens also offers a robotics master’s program that immerses students in the mathematical and engineering foundations of robotics. Additionally, it gives them hands-on laboratory projects in robotics and mechatronics, a multidisciplinary field that encompasses skill sets utilized in advanced manufacturing, including mechanics, electronics and computing.
“These graduate-level programs are starting to trickle down to the undergraduate level,” added Manoochehri. “So, we’ll reach even more students. Today, manufacturing is no longer simply running a machine. Instead, employees need to understand the interface between computers and manufacturing equipment, how to work in a digital environment, and how to optimize processes before you start a production run. Everything is integrated, today.”
Other educational institutions are also working to support manufacturing companies. “Among other activities, we’re partnering with state and federal agencies to support workforce development programs,” said Rutgers University School of Engineering Dean Alberto Cuitiño. “And we’re developing graduate and undergraduate curricula to meet industry needs, including undergraduate-level courses in manufacturing processes – Industrial and Systems Engineering – and graduate-level courses in smart manufacturing and cybersecurity – Mechanical Engineering.”
Advanced manufacturing is an interdisciplinary focus at the School of Engineering, he added, with broad impact within aerospace, health care, tooling, automotive, energy and materials industries. “The New Jersey Advanced Manufacturing Initiative at Rutgers includes sensing network, like 5G, machine learning, and advanced control,” Cuitiño said.
Rutgers has also made significant investments in advanced manufacturing in infrastructure, equipment – to the tune of $1.5 million – programs, and faculty and staff, he added. “For example, we have unique manufacturing facilities on the engineering campus that serve graduate and undergraduate students and faculty, and we’ve engaged in focused projects with industry; Rutgers has recruited more than 10 faculty focused on manufacturing, and we’ve attracted more than $10 million in manufacturing-related research.”
Not a cakewalk
But training employees for today’s manufacturing positions can be challenging, “because it requires both analytics and hands-on experience,” cautioned New Jersey Institute of Technology Dean of Engineering Moshe Kam. “Universities have traditionally been better in teaching analytics, and less adept at ‘hands on’ activities, namely high-quality lab and workshop experience.”
NJIT, however, has made “significant strides in addressing this deficiency by integrating into the engineering curriculum the concept of Experiential Learning,” he said. “The strongest evidence of Experiential Learning at NJIT is the NJIT Makerspace.”
He said the 20,000-square-foot Makerspace facility “houses advanced fabrication and metrology equipment, including 3D Metal printers, multi-axis Computer Numerical Control Machining Centers, automated electronic fabrication equipment, and advanced metrology systems. Students are trained on them and use them for class projects, design projects and even their personal designs.
Added NJIT School of Applied Engineering and Technology Director Sam Lieber, “The Makerspace provides NJIT students with direct experience on state-of-the-art machinery and systems and prepares them to contribute to industry as soon as they enter the workforce. The skills developed are applicable in areas such as process development, fabrication, and metrology. It is a kind of amusement park for engineers.”
Despite efforts to boost manufacturing in the Garden State, the high cost of land means that large-scale manufacturing plants are not likely to return to New Jersey — at least, unless they receive heavy-duty financial and tax incentives, according to Souran Manoochehri, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Charles V. Schaefer Jr. School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology.
“But manufacturing can now be done in a distributed environment, so we could see different kinds of manufacturing jobs come back here,” he said. “You may have a plant in Texas, say, but a New Jersey satellite office can work with them on R&D and digital setup, and perhaps remotely launch processes. New Jersey can supply the brainpower to develop advanced manufacturing ‘recipes,’ which are then downloaded to facilities in lower-cost locations. I am upbeat about the possibilities.”
Positive attributes like New Jersey’s central location and its highly rated educational system act as incentives for businesses, including DIVE, an advanced manufacturing company based in Boonton. But can the state keep them here?
“Boonton is a quaint town, with plenty of restaurants and coffee shops,” said DIVE co-founder and CEO Alex Tholl. “We can get to markets like New York, or to Newark airport pretty easily, which is a plus. But our business model, partnering with other companies that have additive manufacturing equipment, means that we can be located just about anywhere — and we’re looking to move our operations out of New Jersey, because this state doesn’t care for small businesses like ours.”
He pointed to issues like “New Jersey’s high taxes, insurance, cost of real estate, and steep minimum wage. These issues are not feasible for growth. We want to own space, instead of renting, and that’s not realistic here. Plus, there’s a lot of talk about making New Jersey business friendly, but we don’t see that, aside from a few grant opportunities.”
Added Tholl, “My co-founder Adam Hecht and I were recently at a manufacturing event, and some members of Gov. [Phil] Murphy’s cabinet were there to give a presentation. They talked a bit, but then just walked out without meeting anyone or taking any questions. It’s like they just don’t care.”
Tholl said the DIVE business owners are looking at states like Texas and Nevada, which don’t have an individual income tax; and at Arizona, which has low rates. “We do business all over the world,” he explained. “We don’t need to be here.”