“Please raise your hand if your tenants have encountered any difficulties obtaining or retaining the workforce they need,” Anne Strauss-Wieder, Director, Freight Planning, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, asked the audience at NAIOP’s I.CON East: The Industrial Conference.
Almost every hand went up.
In a panel discussion on this workforce issue, Strauss-Wieder joined Glenn Best, director manufacturing and supply chain sector strategy, New Jersey Council of County Colleges; Steven Hussain, head of government and community affairs, Prologis; and Owen O’Neil, executive director, Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority; to share their perspectives and present some potential tools and solutions.
Best shared details of New Jersey’s “Pathways to Career Opportunities” program, a collaborative effort between the Community College Consortium and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
The $8.5 million initiative, established in 2022, supports all 18 community colleges in the state, working collaboratively to focus on four specific industry sectors: health services; infrastructure and energy; innovation and technology; and manufacturing and supply chain. These four sectors were chosen based on labor market data which showed they represented about 33% of employment opportunities in the state of New Jersey and had strong projected growth for the next decade.
As part of the program, leaders from these industries meet regularly with the consortium to help provide them with real-time perspectives around the curriculum they’re enhancing, developing or expanding, to ensure they meet the needs of the industry.
“There’s always been somewhat of a disconnect between academia and industry,” Best said. This new approach allows the colleges to hear directly from the employers about what skills, talent and credentials they need.
Hussain shared details of Prologis’ Community Workforce Initiative, which started in 2017. The program came from conversations with the company’s customers, who named labor as their No. 1 pain point. “And that was before the pandemic,” he added.
Prologis built a network of partnerships across the country (with an eye to the company’s key markets), and several NGOs received grant funding from Prologis to start logistics and supply chain programs. “There was a specific emphasis on connecting people who were looking for employment with jobs – not just our customers, but the broader industry,” Hussain said.
None of the partners across the country look the same. After all, Newark, New Jersey, is very different from Dallas, Texas. The logistics industry is different, and the needs are different in each market. The workforce development system can be complicated.
“But the core thing that we have learned over the past few years of doing this is, candidly, the training is the easy part,” Hussain said. “It’s figuring out the support for workers that’s the hard part. How many people can we retain and what services they need to be retained?”
He mentioned childcare (both availability and affordability) and transportation (how many routes to your building are under 30 minutes?). “You need to be looking at these kinds of submetrics to think about what the population needs and how you can address that.”
As Strauss-Weider put it: “If you advertise a position, and someone goes online and looks up where that building is and can’t figure out how to get there, either they’re not going to take the job, or they can’t successfully hold on to that job.”
O’Neil has seen explosive industrial growth in the Lehigh Valley in the last several years. They’ve had 30 million square feet of logistics warehouse space in the region already approved or built, and another 26 million square feet are currently in the approval process.
Despite that growth, the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) still has a fleet of just 86 buses.
“One of the reasons I point out the number of 86 buses is those are finite resources,” O’Neil said. “We’re currently using every bus we have and all the public funding. Anything new that comes along, a new facility in a location where we don’t currently offer transportation, we really don’t have the resources to serve that unless we’re taking it from somewhere else. And that’s probably the case for every public transit agency that you may be working with in any location around the country.”
LANTA has been working to stretch their resources further and further. In some cases, a main bus route will go out to suburban locations where smaller shuttle buses can take passengers to secondary stops farther afield. A flexible reservation-based service allows passengers to schedule a time for pick-up at a predetermined location. If no reservation is made, that bus can be utilized in another way.
The challenge with industrial facilities is they are often large, horizontal buildings, not in densely populated areas. They tend to have great degrees of variation in work schedule – not the typical 9-5, but evenings and weekends, late shifts and early shifts.
O’Neil described a Revenue Support Agreement, which can help address this issue. Under these agreements, LANTA tracks how much revenue they generate from a trip to the employer’s location. If it doesn’t meet or exceed LANTA’s cost in making the trip, the employer makes up the difference. Amazon was one of the first employers to enter into this type of agreement, and O’Neil said it’s been a win-win. In some cases, multiple facilities are located near each other, and these companies can share the costs.
“When you’re building these places, if you want people to be able to take buses, you have to have pedestrian infrastructure in place,” O’Neil also emphasized. Sidewalks are key in allowing people to take the buses safely and conveniently to these places.
“I always like to share that 99% of transit trips start with either a walk or a roll [“roll” referring to using a wheelchair],” he said. “The other thing we really push is bus strop infrastructure. Shelters, benches, signage… Just being able to walk out and sit down to wait for the bus as opposed to standing after standing at work all day can make a huge positive impact.”
“We’ve given you examples of the resources available,” Strauss-Weider said in closing. “These exist in every single state and in most communities around the country. They are there for you to ask about.”
“What I can tell you in launching these programs across the country is there is a group of willing and dedicated individuals who are very passionate about connecting people to employment,” Hussain added.