One of the fundamental challenges with combating income inequality is ensuring that we have a workforce in place to meet the needs of today’s employers, while being mindful of where the jobs of tomorrow will exist. This requires meaningful strategic investment in New Jersey’s greatest asset -- our human capital -- and making sure that wages for our labor force match that investment. This investment is critically important in today’s day and age as many on the higher rungs of the economic prosperity ladder have done well, while residents in the middle and lower end of the economic scale have largely been left behind.
We often read or hear the term “workforce development” whenever the subject of jobs arises, intermingled with income inequality. It’s not too simple to ask the question: What does workforce development mean? Some have described it as the “poor cousin of education.” In reality, it is supposed to prepare people with the training and skills that lead to better-paying jobs.
As with all complex and broad topics, no single magic button solves everything. However, I have recently introduced legislative proposals that address these issues directly. The ideas are rooted in the real world and attempt to offer pragmatic solutions to the income inequality/workforce development conundrum we face in New Jersey. These solutions were born out of conversations with business leaders, state labor department officials, and workforce development organizations. The goal is simple -- create a positive impact on the enduring problem of workforce development and income inequality that can bend the curve on its disparity.
The first step is to gather information from experts and those “on the ground” before proceeding with a broader workforce initiative. That’s precisely what my initiative Senate Bill 393 seeks to do: to codify the establishment of the Talent Network Program in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Its purpose is to develop centralized sources of intelligence about the workforce needs of the state’s key industries. Under a consortium of experts in the nonprofit, industry and post-secondary sectors, the program would grant funds to engage and convene key education and workforce providers to identify the capacity of local partners to meet industry workforce needs. The Talent Networks align training and education with in-demand skills, to make New Jersey’s economy stronger by creating a sort of “employment eco-system” to move New Jersey residents into these in-demand career fields. Currently, the state has talent networks set up in: Advanced Manufacturing, Construction & Utilities, Financial Services, Food Industry, Health Care, Life Sciences, Retail Hospitality & Tourism, and Transportation Logistics & Distribution.
Further, I have long championed enhancing New Jersey’s manufacturing sector as a means to undergird this effort. As such, I have proposed a manufacturing reinvestment account program to incentivize capital investment and workforce training in New Jersey through the use of income tax rate reductions, deferrals and accelerated deductions. The purpose of this initiative (Senate Bill 1143) is to make it easier for New Jersey’s small manufacturing businesses to invest in manufacturing machinery, equipment and workforce development. The proposal offers several incentives for small manufacturing businesses through the gross income tax and corporation business tax.
The manufacturing industry, throughout our nation’s history, has always been one of the main girders of the American Dream. Workers in manufacturing jobs earn over 20 percent more in annual pay and benefits than the average worker in other industries, which translates into $40,000 more than other non-farm workers in our state. Investments in this industry sector have a stronger impact than investments in any other economic sector on growing our state’s economy.
Finally, we also need to ensure that the expansion of workforce development programs target those individuals who need this help the most. Senate Bill 1887 directs the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to design and implement a pilot program to provide certain unemployed and underemployed persons with training in mathematical, literacy or technical skills, on an accelerated schedule, to facilitate their entry or re-entry into the workforce.
The bill directs the commissioner to consult with the Secretary of Higher Education, the county colleges, county vocational school districts, and the Adult Education staff at the Department of Education on the design and implementation of the pilot program. The bill specifically targets “qualified displaced workers” and “qualified disadvantaged workers” in an effort to help jumpstart them back into the workforce. Advancing in the job market without post-secondary education or training is now more difficult than ever before. That is why I feel this initiative is so important -- because it will help these individuals gain the skills they need to earn the living they desire for themselves and their families.
This last initiative is particularly exciting to me. It touches the very people who are willing to work and just need a little help. That help, under my proposal, is providing them with an education and new skills that will lift them up. As I’ve repeatedly said over the years -- when we add someone to the work rolls, we are not only helping that individual and his or her family, we are adding to the greater economic and social good of our state. That’s my take, what’s yours?