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An Essential Tool
Upskilling can be mutually beneficial to employees and employers as the business landscape continues to evolve.

by Matt Cosentino

For the past two decades, the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs (WRI) at Rutgers University-Camden has followed its mission of conducting comprehensive research projects pertinent to the issues of the day in the eight southernmost counties of New Jersey, including Burlington, Camden and Gloucester. With the goal of informing public policy and connecting its findings to influential leaders, WRI concentrates its work on several focus areas, such as transportation, public health, population health, education—and workforce development.

It was that last category that led to a recent report titled “Seeking Work in Southern New Jersey.” Since businesses are dealing with drastic changes as a result of factors like the pandemic, a slow economy, globalization and automation, just to name a few, WRI and its partners set out to better understand the barriers and opportunities facing both employees and employers.

“We interviewed 20 job seekers and conducted 12 focus groups with employers representing industries from a broad spectrum, including banking, construction, education, government, manufacturing, technology, tourism, trades and utilities,” says Devon Zimski, a senior research project administrator at WRI who served as the lead on the project. “The goal of taking all this data was to analyze it and then highlight the overlapping themes between our job seekers and our employers, to add to the body of evidence around how people are finding and keeping jobs and to help build on a lot of the progress that we know is already happening in South Jersey.”

The importance of upskilling factored into several of the many conclusions drawn from the research. No longer just for new hires, the practice of upskilling—meaning continuous education and skill-building through training opportunities and development programs—can be mutually beneficial, allowing employees to be promoted to higher levels within the organization and further their careers while helping employers to fill needed positions from within and foster company loyalty.

“A strong theme that folks talked a lot about … was to have a job develop into a career and [their desire] to stay at a firm if it was providing those growth opportunities,” Zimski says. “The employers also recognized the value of providing growth opportunities and supporting inclusive environments to retain folks and have them rise through the organization.”

Both Zimski and William Moen Jr.—the executive director of workforce development & innovation at Camden County College—agree that employees and employers alike are seeing the advantages to upskilling, and that South Jersey educational institutions in both K-12 and collegiate settings have answered the call by providing those programs.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve seen more companies and organizations like nonprofits that recognize there are these kinds of opportunities that are in most cases very low cost but high value for their employees, and are one of the things that are provided to employees as a measure to keep them happy or keep them with the organization or company,” Moen says. “If there’s an ability for an employee who likes their company to receive a promotion but there’s some type of training or certification that is required—and they might not have the means personally to go after it—these opportunities are there for those employees, and quite frankly for the employers who have the vision to see that these are valuable on both sides of the conversation.”

Moen’s department examines workforce trends nationally and regionally, does direct outreach with businesses and organizations, and builds partnerships in the community in order to determine the necessary skills and training that companies and employees are seeking, and then goes about offering those programs. It may be customized corporate training that focuses on leadership skills, time management, and diversity, equity and inclusion, or trade training related to welding, HVAC, carpentry and electrical.

“There are specific needs of a company that we can work with, but we’re also responding to the needs of the region and the economy by making sure what we’re training in terms of programming will result in jobs for our students because the demand is there,” Moen says.

“For example, we know that in South Jersey, offshore wind is a huge issue and likely to create hundreds of jobs over the next few years. So we made sure we connected our trade training programs, particularly our welding program, to the needs of the companies that will be building the monopiles that are going to be manufactured at the Port of Paulsboro.”

Camden County College also offers New Jersey Business & Industry Association basic skills training for both individuals and groups to learn and develop the soft skills that are so often in demand. “It’s very likely that any company you may think of in Camden County and the surrounding region, they’re either working with us and training their employees or they’re on our list to talk to,” Moen says. “The program is covered by BIA partnerships, so there’s no cost to the employer or the employee.”

As Moen continues to spread the word about the college’s existing and potential programs, Zimski and Mavis Asiedu-Frimpong, the director of WRI, have been doing the same since the publication of their report, as they have presented at several local events and disseminated their findings to as many key decision-makers as possible. The end goal is to affect change through the data they have collected, with a focus on diversifying industries, expanding opportunities, increasing flexibility and access to careers, and reducing barriers.

“There’s a lot of great work happening in this space, so moving forward, the local and regional collaboration remains essential to build upon the progress and continue to create opportunities,” Zimski says.


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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 7 (July 2023).

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