There are scholarships and accolades for kids who go to college, but not necessarily for kids who’d rather build a college. So says Rep. Donald Norcross Jr. Instead of a scholarship, he got an apprenticeship in the construction trades that fueled his career. This National Apprenticeship week, Norcross spoke with Business Correspondent Rhonda Schaffler.
Schaffler: Congressman, what are some of the misconceptions about working in the skill trades and how does National Apprenticeship Week change that?
Norcross: Well, each year we take a week out of our calendar to show, quite frankly, how our country came to be in terms of its employment working. Apprenticeships have been around since the turn of the century in the United States, but they were around in medieval times, handing down to the next generation a craft that could take care of your family and yourself. Today, it’s known as a job and a career.
Schaffler: This is something that you know very well, first hand. Tell us about your experience.
Norcross: Well, I like to tell people I went to the other four year school — it’s called an apprenticeship. I was a young man, I enjoyed working with my hands, tearing apart things as my parents would tell me. They gave me a bike, I’d tear it apart. I really enjoyed that part. I was lucky enough to be accepted into an electrical apprenticeship program, and I thought I’d won the lottery. It was one of the happiest days of my life, at least until I met my wife.
Schaffler: We hear a lot in New Jersey about companies and manufacturing, for instance, and other areas where they cannot find qualified workers. How is that hurting our economy in New Jersey?
Norcross: We hear this all the time, in fact I just left a hearing where some of the major corporations, Amazon, Microsoft, said we can’t find skilled workers. The fact of the matter is it needs to be a trade off, working together. That’s so important, and that’s why apprenticeships, we believe, is one of the methods that will help put America back to work. We were recently in Switzerland — 40 percent of the working population in Switzerland goes to an apprenticeship program. Bankers, insurance, they include all of it, not just the traditional ones we know, which are the building trades.
Schaffler: What else can be done to encourage companies to participate in programs like this in New Jersey?
Norcross: Well, that is really the key. The administration has thrown out some ideas that somehow we should pay companies to train. I believe that we set the standards as government and it’s up to them to train the workforce they want. It doesn’t happen overnight and it helps to have the cooperation between management and those workers so together they come up with the skill sets. You need flexibility, but you also have to be timely, so when the jobs are available you have skill sets and the people to work them.
Schaffler: How are you seeing this play out in your district?
Norcross: Well, my district is along the Delaware River. When I started as an apprentice we had four major refineries, a couple of chemical plants, very industrialized. There was a base of work there that needed very highly skilled electricians, carpenters, plumbers and that’s what our area grew up in. The Delaware River was the liquid highway that brought commerce in and that’s, quite frankly, how it grew. I live in the Victor Building, the Victrola. Recorded sound started in the building I now live in. We have to also change with the times, they’re not building the Victrolas anymore.
Schaffler: Congressman, I know that you’ve actually pushed something called the 529 Options Act, basically giving people a savings vehicle to pay for trade school and other alternatives to college. Why does this make sense for a lot of young people?
Norcross: When I had my children, we didn’t know if they wanted to go to college or build the college. But this 529, which is a vehicle to defer the taxes on those who wanted to go to college only, well how about if they wanted to go into the trade? So, we’re literally working on that as we speak to allow those 529 funds to go to apprenticeship schools or college. Those expenses that they use for an education and a career, not just for a piece of paper and college.
Schaffler: In some ways, is a blue collar career, what’s known as a traditional blue collar job, a safer job these days than what we traditionally call a white collar job?
Norcross: It depends if you’ve been laid off or not, if you’ve been fired. Certainly, trade policies in the past have helped contribute to it, but there’s cycles in any of our industries and during the Great Recession it was horrible. We had massive unemployment throughout the industry. So those weren’t the good days, but today are great days. If you’re an electrician, or you’re a lineman now, you’re working a good, fair living. And in fact, we know that they’re really needed in Texas, Florida, Virgin Islands and they can’t get enough skill sets. So we, not only as a country, but as individuals have to put apprenticeships, working with your hand and mind, just as important for those college professors and policemen.
Schaffler: Congressman, in terms of bringing more manufacturing opportunities to New Jersey, is that the obligation of the federal government or the state government or both, and do you think with a new administration coming into Trenton, there can be some headway there?
Norcross: Here’s a great political answer — yes, no and maybe, let me explain what I mean. You know, I live in Camden. The fact of the matter is we had zero incentives and we had zero growth. We created small economic opportunities and incentives, and now we’re literally $2.5 billion worth of private employment and private construction going on. That didn’t happen by accident. The city, the state, the county working together, and now Camden was the highest in the nation in growth in jobs over the last quarter of last year. That’s an amazing spot compared to where we were. So, when a company works together with their employees, when a town works together with companies, it’s a winning combination for everyone.
Schaffler: Congressman Norcross, thank you so much for your time.