A “conversation with industry experts” at the New Jersey Technology Council annual meeting on Thursday became a referendum on finding talent in N.J., with Bill Kroll, president, chairman and CEO of Matheson Tri-Gas Inc., headquartered in Basking Ridge, firing the first salvo. Companies in N.J. can create jobs all they want, he said, “but what’s missing are the young men and women to perform” them. “You can ultimately create jobs, but just go and try to find someone that you can hire.”
N.J. companies often turn to the H-1B visa, which temporarily lets firms employ foreigners for specialty jobs, but that is no panacea, since the visas “are usually used up by March,” Kroll said. He added that if N.J. wants engineers and Ph.D.s in the future, it had better start training them now, because it takes 20 years for someone to get out of the pipeline.
Shihab Kuran, president and CEO of Petra Solar Inc., South Plainfield, added that access to talent is “the number one challenge for us.” He said that when the company was first established, the first five vice presidents it tried to hire came from out of state. “We couldn’t find a single person from N.J. that we could hire.” The company’s first check, after its Series A funding round, was for $1 million to a university, “so we could grow and train our own employees.”
Even so, Kuran hasn’t found dealing with N.J. universities easy. He suggested that N.J. colleges need to follow the lead of the University of North Carolina, which has established the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center, a state-of-the-art research facility that hosts a variety of engineering departments and has space for and encourages collaboration with industry.
Kroll added that the State University of New York at Albany is doing the same kind of thing with semiconductors at the Center for Semiconductor Research and that his firm has eight employees who hold a Ph.D working there. N.J. could be offering the same kinds of exciting opportunities for companies, but it isn’t, Kuran and Kroll indicated.
David Sorin, co-founder and co-managing partner of SorinRoyerCooper LLC, with N.J. offices in East Brunswick, added that his clients are finding access to qualified employees difficult here, and two of them had acquired foreign companies solely to obtain access to tech talent.
Kroll added that the U.S. needs to keep within its borders the foreigners who study science and technology at our universities. They all seem to return to their countries. “Take every kid that graduates with an engineering and science degree and just staple a green card to their diploma,” he offered, to give them an incentive to stay here and help tech companies grow.
Nancy Lurker, CEO of PDI Inc., Parsippany, said that N.J. has to inspire youth who are interested in science and math. She pointed out that there are several nonprofits working on the problem, including some in the pharmaceutical industry that are exposing inner-city youth to state-of-the-art equipment in science laboratories.