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Ahead of the Curve
As the state’s manufacturing industry evolves, moves are being made to ensure we are well prepared for the challenges ahead.

by Peter Proko

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And that is certainly true here in New Jersey, where manufacturing has long been an economic driver for the state, but continues to develop as a rapidly growing industry.

If a recent report is any indication, New Jersey could be poised for a very bright, if not nuanced, future. The study, conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, states that the United States could have the potential to create 3.8 million new manufacturing jobs by 2033.

While that is certainly encouraging news, this demand will not be without its growing pains. Employers will be faced with workforce development challenges, not to mention the difficult task of attracting and retaining top talent in a competitive labor market.

To try and combat these issues, both state and industry officials are working diligently to create programs, raise funding and prepare tomorrow’s workforce for what lies ahead. Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy dedicated an additional $20 million toward the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s (NJEDA’s) New Jersey Manufacturing Voucher Program. Created in 2022, the program now boasts $53 million in total funding and is designed to help manufacturers buy crucial equipment that will help boost productivity and their overall capabilities.

“New Jersey’s manufacturers are critical to our economy and nation’s supply chain,” said Gov. Murphy last July. “The Manufacturing Voucher Program is a proven success, and this additional funding will help even more businesses modernize and become more efficient and profitable.”

Last summer, Bestwork Industries for the Blind was the recipient of a grant through the program, which enabled the company to purchase an automated folding machine for its textile lines. The equipment allowed Bestwork to consolidate its folding and packaging area, creating three jobs for people who are blind in the process. It also accelerated the ability to diversify into new lines of business by allowing the company to upskill and repurpose employees to newly created positions.

“Bestwork’s vision is to transform from a small, self-sustaining textile manufacturing agency into a full-service social enterprise. That involves diversifying our lines of business. We embrace technology and its ability to improve workplace efficiency. People frequently have the assumption that automation eliminates jobs; however, to the contrary, automation helped Bestwork create jobs,” says Jon Katz, president and CEO.

Elsewhere, the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP) is in the midst of a statewide tour of schools to introduce students in seventh through 10th grade to the world of manufacturing. With emerging technology and other advancements helping propel the industry, future needs will be wide and varied. By engaging the next generation, there is hope of creating a direct pipeline full of bright, young talented minds eager to pursue a manufacturing career .

It’s just the latest concerted effort by NJMEP, which formed a strategic partnership with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) two years ago to bolster the state’s manufacturing presence. At the time, NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka called the collaborative effort “essential to New Jersey’s economy.”

More recently, the NJBIA has aligned itself with NJMEP once again as it takes over the annual State-of-the-State of Manufacturing Summit. The move was met with great enthusiasm by both parties.

“As this crucial industry faces continued workforce challenges and costly burdens that chip away at our competitiveness, we are eager to build upon the success of the State-of-the-State Manufacturing Summit and use it to present, amplify and contextualize the needs and concerns of our manufacturers with policymakers to ensure a better business climate from which to operate,” Siekerka said in a released statement.

“Together, we stand on the brink of transforming the landscape for manufacturers across the state, ensuring their needs and contributions are fully recognized and supported at all levels of government. This is a testament to what we can achieve when we unite our strengths for the greater good of New Jersey’s economic future,” added NJMEP CEO Peter Connolly.

For Katz, the importance of embracing innovation and possessing the ability to adapt as the manufacturing sector redefines itself will be crucial moving forward. As the company has recently experienced a “breakout year” in terms of growth and diversification, including expanding its footprint to North Jersey, it’s relying on its past to assist in building its future.

“Textile manufacturing will always be a core line of business for Bestwork, but supply chain issues of the past really showed businesses why they should not have all their eggs in one basket,” Katz says. “Bestwork is focused on diversifying its business service offerings that are replicable, scalable and portable, which will facilitate expansion.”

And as the manufacturing industry continues to flourish, there will be plenty of others looking to advance their vision as well. Now it remains to be seen if the groundwork being laid currently will help them meet the moment when it arrives.

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 14, Issue 4 (April 2024).

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