Manufacturers and Their Employees Are Unsung Heroes of Pandemic Economy

New Jersey’s manufacturers have stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis to keep manufacturing going.

In some cases, they’ve turned on a dime to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE), said John W. Kennedy, CEO of Cedar Knolls-based New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP), a nonprofit that does assessments of manufacturers and then works with them to help their businesses.

Kennedy was speaking to a virtual audience at Manufacturing Day 2020 — Made in New Jersey, a celebration of New Jersey’s manufacturing sector.

NJMEP never closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, as manufacturers and their employees were considered essential employees.

While things were somewhat disrupted, “You got your medicine, you got your food, you had gas. You had electrical power and treated water. You had repair parts for your vehicles and the appliances in your house. Your construction projects went on. Without what the manufacturing industry brings to bear, nothing happens. So … I ask you today to not forget the unsung heroes,” who are New Jersey’s manufacturers, Kennedy said.

“I will tell you that almost every email and phone call that I received, during the past six months, the first thing that they asked is, ‘How can I protect my people?’ … They understand firsthand that no company exists without a good team.”

Getting The PPE We Needed

While NJMEP had put together an emergency plan after hurricane Sandy, the organization had nothing that could prepare them for COVID-19.

In response to the pandemic, the organization developed seven task forces and made good use of its board of trustees. One especially critical task force dealt with PPE.

 “We have about 9,000 companies in our database, but as we know there were issues with PPE, we were searching for companies throughout the state. The team found approximately 300 companies that worked tirelessly, some with tools, some re-engineered [their processes], to help us provide additional PPE to our State and, honestly, to our country,” Kennedy said.

“We created a recovery and back-to-work guide, and it needed to be changed a heck of a lot because, as more information came in, more work changes needed to be adapted into it so it was an effective document.” Kennedy noted that the organization incorporated information from the CDC, the national MEP organization, and from medical journals because it wanted “the best information, so that companies could go back to work.”

Bringing $1.5 Million to New Jersey

During COVID, the organization began mini-assessments, shorter engagements “so we could find out your immediate needs,” he told the audience. NJMEP wanted to know where to focus its work, but it also needed the information to “effectively go after some federal dollars,” Kennedy said.

“The MEP national network stepped up, and we were able to bring $1.5 million into New Jersey, and 100 percent of that went to manufacturers,” he stated.

Kennedy mentioned NJMEP’s apprenticeship program, which will be bringing 160 new hires into New Jersey’s industrial sector. “I think we’re all trading back and forth the same 16 welders and machinists between companies, but we need to build that pipeline with some incredible people.” NJMEP is looking at candidates from Trenton, Paterson, Camden and Newark to be able to give potential apprentices national credentials.

Kennedy noted that whenever anything happens with manufacturing, people say it’s because we are not manufacturing in the States. “Well we certainly do [manufacture here]. … However, it’s the supply chain that needs to be repaired, not only in New Jersey, but in the country. We’ve got the companies that can do it right here.”

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