Meredith Aronson directs the ManufactureNJ Talent Network at NJIT.
A talent network at NJIT is invigorating New Jersey’s advanced manufacturing sector. The network, formed last year, has helped ensure that workers have the right skills to work and succeed in today’s sophisticated manufacturing sector.
The ManufactureNJ Talent Network has reached out to advanced manufacturing companies and manufacturing associations to assess their workforce and technological needs. It has worked with community colleges to restructure academic programs so that students are trained to enter the new world of high-tech manufacturing. And the network has even helped the state develop policies that will allow manufacturing companies in New Jersey to flourish and also to create a business climate that will attract more companies.
The talent network is funded by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which identified manufacturing as one of six strategic sectors poised to bolster the state's economy. The state chose to house the Talent Network at NJIT because of the university’s long commitment to New Jersey’s economic development and workforce development.
To cite just a few examples of how NJIT has done that, the Continuing Profession Education Division at NJIT has over the last two decades trained more than 74,000 workers, many of whom work for major N.J. companies. NJIT each year also graduates thousands of engineers and technologists, most of who work in state. In fact, 25 percent of the engineers working in state are graduates of NJIT. Since its inception, NJIT has supplied the manufacturing sector with the skilled engineers and managers it needs to compete globally.
These days, like all other industries, manufacturing is beset by global competition and fast-changing technology. Whereas 30 years ago New Jersey was home to many large manufacturing companies, now it is home to thousands of smaller ones. And those smaller manufacturers are working hard to keep abreast of ever-changing technologies and changing workforce needs. That is where the Talent Network comes into play.
"Manufacturing still retains a stigma about it that’s unfounded," says Meredith Aronson, who directs the ManufactureNJ Talent Network. "Jobs in advanced manufacturing provide a rich set of career paths. It's my job to talk to students, employers, industry groups and the state to bring the talents together to bolster the future of manufacturing in New Jersey.”
The network is also sponsoring ManufactureNJ Week, a week-long series of events across the state focused on the state’s manufacturing industry. The first event is being held at NJIT and features a career exploration trade show, an executive roundtable and talks from Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno as well as from officials from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
In this interview, Aronson, who has a background in anthropology and engineering and once founded a manufacturing company, talks about the myriad ways in which the Talent Network is helping to buttress, modernize and expand New Jersey’s manufacturing sector.
What are you doing to boost advanced manufacturing in New Jersey?
My role as Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Talent Network is to establish strong connections between the manufacturing sector, the public sector, and the workforce and career-seeking populations. I see it this way: If the alignment between how we train and educate people and the needs of companies that produce products were perfect, we'd see a strong middle class, a highly competitive manufacturing sector, lower unemployment and fewer recruitment agencies.
What is advanced manufacturing?
Advanced manufacturing employs new technologies, precision machinery and modern production methods. It’s the kind of manufacturing that uses information technology, robotics, process innovation, and even technical advances in areas such as nanotechnology to make products. Even the most complex technical equipment still might use screws. How you make them and what they’re made of is the key in advanced manufacturing.
You are working at various levels to promote advanced manufacturing. Can you talk about your work?
If we are to have a strong economy then our manufacturing sector must be innovative. And to be innovative you need a skilled workforce. So a lot of my work has been to forge partnerships between NJ manufacturers that need skilled workers and the high schools and colleges that want to expand programs to produce skilled workers. I take a systematic approach to my job, which means that even while focused on workforce, I’m also talking to the state about public policy and to manufacturing associations about their needs. I’m working on several fronts to create a competitive future for NJ manufacturers, to create conditions to grow jobs in the sector. The initiative I direct is called the ManufactureNJ Talent Network for a good reason, since my mission, working from my NJIT office, is to activate strategic networks that will bolster the state’s advanced manufacturing, starting with workforce.
Why did the state choose to host the Manufacturing Talent Network at NJIT?
The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which funds the Talent Network, chose to host the Talent Network at NJIT for a very good reason. NJIT has a long history of supporting manufacturing and state-wide economic development. It also has a long history of workforce development. NJIT’s Division of Continuing Professional Education, headed by Gale Spak, has led the state in workforce development, helping to train and educate tens of thousands students and workers and corporate employees. Gale Spak also led the effort to bring the Advanced Manufacturing Talent Network to NJIT
How is NJIT involved in what your work?
NJIT is thus centrally involved in what I am doing. I have had strategic conversations with NJIT’s administration about the university’s role in regional development. President Joel Bloom is a strong proponent of NJIT's role as a thought leader around manufacturing. Vice President Don Sebastian, a national expert in research and development, also works on myriad levels to promote advanced manufacturing. NJIT has also generously donated lab facilities to support workforce training. In brief, NJIT has been a great host of the talent network.
Is there still a strong manufacturing base in NJ?
Over the decades, some manufacturers have left the state, but more than 10,000 manufacturers remain, and most of them are small companies. New Jersey is still home to a large number of company headquarters, given that is was the birthplace of so many global manufacturing companies. Manufacturers struggle to find skilled workers, and a part of my job is helping those companies connect with workers. I also work with community schools and even some colleges, such as NJIT, that help educate and train people who can fill those jobs.
Talk about the Manufacture NJWeek, a weeklong series of events, the first of which is hosted at NJIT.
Yes, we have having a week of events that will bring together manufacturers and workers, students and prominent state officials. The kickoff event at NJIT will be fantastic. We’ll have a panel called “Fresh Faces in Manufacturing" that features a group of founders/CEOs in manufacturing who will talk about how they started their companies. Some of them are younger folks who have rolled up their sleeves and built companies. This is an aspirational event, to help kids and adults imagine their place in the future of manufacturing in the state. We’ll also have a so-called MakerHUB, a career exploration mixer for students and companies. We have over 220 individuals registered and professionals from 20 companies will come to talk about the rich array of manufacturing careers, and the skills students will need to pursue those careers.
What do you hope will come out of this NJIT event?
The goal of the event is twofold: 1) to address the need for a public-private dialogue to help create an integrated manufacturing policy in New Jersey, and 2) to create a forum to help educate students and the public about manufacturing and manufacturing careers today. Manufacturing still has a tarnished image that sometimes keeps qualified people from considering careers in this sector. We hope to dispel that myth and to boost advanced manufacturing in NJ.
By Robert Florida