SJ Manufacturers Tell Lawmakers They Need Pipeline To Skilled Labor

Held at Rowan College at Burlington County, the hearing featured testimony from several manufacturing companies in the region, as well as leaders from the New Jersey Breweries Association and the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

MOUNT LAUREL — Turns out that New Jersey’s notoriously high taxes aren’t the No. 1 problem plaguing some South Jersey manufacturers.

Taxes remain a headache, but the leaders of several manufacturing businesses in the region told lawmakers Friday that the sector’s biggest challenge is now finding and keeping workers with the education and training needed to operate and maintain their high-tech machinery and equipment.

“We just can’t find technicians in the state of New Jersey,” Nigal Raval, Pennsauken site director for Puratos, an international company that makes ingredients for restaurants and other food producers, told members of the Senate Manufacturing Caucus during a special hearing Friday.

Held at Rowan College at Burlington County, the hearing featured testimony from several manufacturing companies in the region, as well as leaders from the New Jersey Breweries Association and the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

Among the lawmakers present were Sens. Linda Greenstein, D-14 of Plainsboro, and Steve Oroho, R-24 of Franklin, who serve as co-chairs of the caucus, as well as Sens. Troy Singleton, D-7 of Delran, and Sam Thompson, R-12 of Old Bridge.

While the hearing featured testimony about a number of issues, including the impact of tariffs and the ongoing U.S. trade war with China, state regulations and taxes, the issue that seemed most pressing to most of the manufacturers involved the shortage of skilled labor.

While many of New Jersey’s county colleges and vocational schools are now offering advanced manufacturing courses and programs, Raval and other business leaders said there aren’t yet enough students graduating from the programs to meet the need.

“There’s still no active pipeline for us to go to colleges or local schools to pick students from to hire them for one position or another,” Raval said. “It’s becoming almost untenable for us.”

He said finding qualified technicians is hard enough. But because skilled manufacturing workers are in such high demand, those with that training can easily find work elsewhere for slightly higher pay.

“We’ll hire a guy and he’ll work for us for three months for $33 or $34 an hour and then he’ll leave and go down the street (to another business) and get $35 there. In the last year we’ve hired 10 maintenance technicians and eight of them have left voluntarily because they got more money someplace else,” he said.

Maryann Hajduk, vice-president of H&H Industrial Corp., a Pennsauken-based metal enclosure manufacturer, expressed similar frustrations about the difficulty the company has faced finding workers skilled to operate a punch press.

“It’s amazingly difficult to fill that position. I want to train them. I can’t get them to stay,” Hajduk said. “I have a great workforce of long-term employees that have been here for 30 years. But when my 30-year people retire, I have no one to replace them with.”

The issue is not an unfamiliar one for Greenstein and the other caucus members. In fact, last year the caucus was the driving force behind a $500 million bond measure that dedicated significant sums for expansion of county vocational schools and county colleges, as well as school security improvements and water contamination remediation.

The bond measure was overwhelmingly approved by voters last November but Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has not yet borrowed the funds or finalized the regulations required for schools to apply for the funding.

Greenstein said making that money available is a top priority.

“I think with this new bond issue, once it gets rolling, I think that will be helpful to companies like yours,” she told Raval. “And I hope it gets rolling soon.”

Jackie Burke, assistant executive director of the Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, agreed the bond money is critical for the expansion of advanced manufacturing programs.

“We hope to be your pipeline,” she told the manufacturers, adding that the county schools need businesses willing to partner with apprenticeships and as advisors.

“We’re hoping to expand our schools by a huge amount with this money. We need the businesses and the businesses need the students,” she said.

In addition to the bond money, the Senate has approved a 10-bill package to encourage and reward apprenticeship programs throughout the state. However, the package is still pending in the Assembly.

Singleton, who also works as a leader with a regional carpenters union, said both the apprenticeship package and the bond measure are key for the state.

“Workforce development is always a priority, and looking to the resources we’ve put into it and trying to get those from off the sort of desk and out into the field is critically important. I’m going to be pressing our legislative leadership and the administration to make sure we get those workforce investment dollars out there,” he said. “The folks we’ve seen with apprenticeships, we know they work, and the investment in those not only makes our workforce stronger, it makes it more well-rounded and educated too.”

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