This article originally appeared May 29, 2019 in the Asbury Park Press.
By Michael L. Diamond
Aquatherm, a Lakewood manufacturer that makes solar heating systems for swimming pools, has no shortage of ideas that could help its business grow.
Workers, on the other hand, are another story.
“I see our engineers come up with ideas and they have to stop sometimes and we can’t move forward because we don’t have the right people on the production line,” Patricia Cubero, general manager.
Help is on the way to Aquatherm and other blue-collar firms, even if a new effort won’t pay off for several years. New Jersey is launching a program in Ocean County to reignite interest in careers that fell out of favor by offering field trips in manufacturing for students and an all-important constituency — their parents.
It’s a step, officials say, toward rebuilding what has been a broken ladder to the middle class. And it comes on the heels of a recent series by the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey and the Asbury Park Press that looked at what it will take to restore the American dream.
The program represents a new strategy for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which is supporting the program with a $20,000 grant and is in the middle of a bruising fight over its tax incentive program.
Both the Murphy administration and Ocean County officials think the program can pay off, giving students a chance at a solidly middle-class career without needing to take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
But first, it needs to convince parents, who had dreams of their children going to college, that manufacturing is a viable career.
“Nobody believes in career technical education like a parent whose student just completed a four-year degree and is back home trying to figure out how that degree matches up to the world of work,” said Linda Eno, assistant commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Education.
Aquatherm could use the help. The company has become the nation’s biggest manufacturer of solar thermal heating systems for swimming pools. It has 40 employees and adds 20 temporary workers to help it through its busy summer season.
Cubero, however, said it has found few workers who can make a seamless transition from school to the factory plant. So it trains the workers and crosses its fingers that they won’t depart for another manufacturer.
How to boost the supply of qualified workers? Cubero hopes the state can change the perception of manufacturing, particularly among parents who have been singularly focused on making sure their children go to college.
“I know for years it’s been, you don’t want your kids to go vocational, you don’t want your kids to work at a manufacturing company,” Cubero said. “My son works for us and I’m very proud that he works at a manufacturing company. I see that he enjoys his job every day and enjoys accomplishing things and seeing the end result.”
New Jersey’s manufacturing history is rich. It was sparked by Alexander Hamilton, who turned Paterson into America’s first industrial city, powered by the Great Falls, seen in the video above. It later was home to workers who made RCA television sets and Ford Motor Co. automobiles.
Employers began to flee New Jersey for lower cost states and countries, taking workers with them. The manufacturing sector dropped from nearly 550,000 jobs in 1990 to fewer than 240,000 in 2015, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
But in the past four years, the sector has shown signs of life. Its job growth rate of 5.6 percent matched the overall employment growth in the state, and topped the manufacturing job growth nationwide of 4.2 percent. Learn more about the fields with the fastest growth in the video at the top of this story.
In New Jersey, for example, machinists make on average $50,160 a year, while tool and die makers earn on average $55,680 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
(The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, a trade group that is calling attention to a labor shortage, says manufacturing workers have an average annual salary of $92,046, but it isn’t clear which occupations are included in that figure).
New Jersey might be finding a niche in so-called advanced manufacturing, which depends on technology and automation to make the end product.
“We’re not going to compete in manufacturing where labor costs themselves are a huge part of the final cost of the product,” Rutgers University economist James W. Hughes said. “But with advanced manufacturing, it’s much more automated and labor is much more skilled.”
The rebound is putting pressure on the industry. Some 360,000 manufacturing jobs in New Jersey are unfilled, according to the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program. And the labor crunch isn’t expected to ease; 80 percent of jobs are held by workers between the ages of 45 and 65.
The jobs are a potential pathway to the middle class, and they don’t require a four-year college degree. But both manufacturers and educators say convincing parents that the field is right for their children is a tough sell.
New Jersey and Ocean County officials hope the field trips can help the industry turn the corner by showing students, parents and guidance counselors that it no longer is grimy, back-breaking work, but instead requires skills found in white-collar jobs as well: math, science, communication, critical thinking and so on.
The Murphy administration hopes it will be part of a new economic development strategy, too. It has run into intense resistance in its attempt to rein in the EDA’s tax breaks. But in this instance, it found plenty of support.
“I know at one time when I was teaching, I would say everybody go to college,” Ocean County Freeholder Joseph Vicari, a Republican and former school teacher, said. “That is not the case anymore.”
Will students give it a chance? Anand and Tria Prashad of Manchester stopped by the Ocean County Technical Vocational School in Jackson one night last week for an open house, wondering if it might be a good fit for their 13-year-old son, Andrew.
The Prashads, who own a home improvement construction business, immigrated 20 years ago from Guyana in South America, and they are hoping their American dream can play out with their children doing better than they did.
They aren’t eager for Andrew to follow in their footsteps; construction can be grueling work, they said. But Andrew isn’t one to bury his head in a book, they said. And there’s a chance he won’t want to go to a four-year college.
“I want to start early in figuring out what he wants to do in life,” Tria Prashad said. “It’s OK if he’s not (going to college). All are not built to be doctors and lawyers and architects.”
The first field trip, scheduled for June 7, will visit Jesel and Unex Manufacturing in Lakewood and the Naval Air Warfare Center in Lakehurst.
Parents, students and businesses interested in participating should contact Ocean County Vocational Technical School at 732-473-3122.
Michael L. Diamond is an award-winning reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy for 20 years. He can be reached at 732-643-4038; firstname.lastname@example.org; or @mdiamondapp.