No Debt, Real Experience, Unlimited Potential

There’s no shortage of work to be done. There’s a shortage of people. Spreading this message is a responsibility everyone must share.

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Engineering Week was recently celebrated nationwide, and it’s designed to encourage educators, business leaders, and role models to share and explore the real value of a modern industrial career. Engineering Week is the ideal time to bring the full force of the industry together to explain what a career in manufacturing really means and what that path may look like in today’s modern industry. No career path is identical and that will become clear when reading through this story.

High school graduation is an intimidating time for many students. 18-year-olds have been told for decades that the only “correct” path after high school is to immediately apply for college. Many begin their higher education journey with no real idea of what they want to study. This causes a host of problems.

First and foremost, students bury themselves in debt before even knowing what they want to do for a living. They might earn a degree completely unrelated to the career path they discover after college. The current U.S. student loan debt is upwards of $1.61 trillion, and as society continues pressuring these young adults to jump from high school to college, that number will continue to climb.

Another issue demanding a decision from 18-year-olds about their higher education is that they assume they don’t need to gain real-world work experience for at least 4 years during their studies. Any recent college graduate that applied for the job understands the frustration of seeing an entry-level position that requires 3-5 years of experience. There is a solution. It begins with helping students recognize that there are countless paths to take following graduation.

Knowing that entering the working world does not write off higher education in the future is a message that needs to be spread.

In the article, ‘Bridging the Skills Chasm by Highlighting Stories of Alternate Career Paths’, readers can hear from a 26-year-old that entered the working world before investing in his college studies. That article offers a perspective from a young adult leaving high school and entering the unknown.

The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, Inc. (NJMEP) is New Jersey’s MEP center. It is led by John W. Kennedy, Ph.D., a massive proponent for alternative career paths and an advocate for the endless pursuit of education. His story is a beautiful example of where these alternate career paths can lead, while also showing that entering the industrial workforce does not mean the end of professional development. 

A Career in Modern Manufacturing

There are over 300,000 open manufacturing positions in the United States. In New Jersey alone, the 11,000+ businesses that make up the ‘MADE in New Jersey’ manufacturing industry have over 30,000 open positions. On average, these New Jersey-based positions offer an average annual salary of over $94,000. Job security is also extraordinarily high.

With so many open positions, once a manufacturer finds a good employee, there is very little chance they will let them go. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, every New Jersey manufacturing business was considered essential. That meant when service-based businesses were laying off their workforce, manufacturers were expanding to keep up with the incredible increase in demand for domestic products.

Manufacturers are also known to provide more extensive benefits packages than other industries. Many of these businesses offer their employees the opportunity to take part in credentialing programs to expand their skill set. Supporting their workforce with professional development opportunities doesn’t stop at work-related credentials and certifications, either. Tuition reimbursement programs are offered by thousands of New Jersey manufacturing businesses as well. Entering the manufacturing field provides job security, highly competitive salaries, and the chance to grow professionally. These benefits are evident when looking at John W. Kennedy’s own personal career path.

Where the Manufacturing Path Can Lead

John W. Kennedy, Ph.D. is NJMEP’s CEO and Center Director. At a very early age, he worked side by side with his dad doing electrical and gas work on nights and weekends. The money earned helped support the family of five and introduced him to industrial work before most children even understood the concept of a career.

Once he turned 14, Kennedy sought out a way to generate income for his savings. He accepted a role at a welding and machine shop which allowed him to do just that. Having the chance to get hands-on with metalworking and welding at an early age opened countless career opportunities and gave him skills he still puts into practice today. Kennedy’s father passed away in his early teenage years leaving a single mother to provide for three children.

John applied to be an Electrical Apprentice but with his father's passing, he had to focus on helping his family, which caused him to lose that spot. Eventually, he would land a position as a Machinist Apprentice, but he was also interested in pursuing higher education to become a Mechanical Engineer. While attending college en route for his first degree, he continued as a Machinist Apprentice.

He graduated in 1978 and was able to offset the cost of college with the money he saved from working at Chiarolanza Brothers Welding & Machine shop, his apprenticeship, baseball scholarship, and grants he pursued. By the time he graduated in ‘78, not only did he have a degree, but he had 10+ years of working experience and an apprenticeship under his belt. 

John W. Kennedy went on to earn a bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering, Education, and Management, an MBA in Business Management, and a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering. Throughout this educational journey, Kennedy also acquired his AWS Welding Certification, Machinist Certification, including CNC & Programming, his Six Sigma Black Belt, and ISO Auditor.

John W. Kennedy’s work ethic, intelligence, and drive contributed to his success. Yet anyone can put themselves in the right position to avoid an avalanche of debt at 18 without any real direction of where they want their studies to take them by exploring the host of certifications and credentials that can open the door to a competitive job in manufacturing.

Many organizations even provide credentialing and training for no cost. NJMEP is currently spearheading a program that provides professional development education and hands-on training to high school students in underserved communities. There are opportunities waiting for students to take part. Opportunities that have the potential to set an individual on an incredible career path that will provide personal fulfillment and financial independence. If a person wants to explore higher education, this alternative route can make it more palatable and effective.

Engineering Week is the perfect excuse to engage young adults and show them first-hand the true face of industrial work. It all stems from educating today’s youth on the career paths that are available, outside of the ones they’ve been taught to accept.

There’s no shortage of work to be done. There’s a shortage of people. Spreading this message is a responsibility everyone in an industrial field must share. Without working together to take full advantage of Engineering Week, National Manufacturing Day, and any other initiative that puts manufacturing, engineering, or STEM in the headlines, the workforce will continue to dwindle until domestic manufacturing collapses.

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