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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.
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.
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.