Companies getting big tax breaks to move to or expand in Camden make a tempting target.
Especially when those hefty public subsidies are largely predicated on the prospect of creating jobs for city residents.
You could say Krishna "Kris" Singh, the founder and CEO of Holtec International, discovered this inconvenient truth after an interview he gave to a New Jersey business publication was, to say the least, poorly received this week. Singh described prospective employees from the city as generally ill-prepared for a high-tech manufacturing job at Holtec — or for any job at all.
"They don't show up to work," Singh is quoted as saying to ROI-NJ. "They can't stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven't done it, and they didn't see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it's difficult."
Camden Mayor Frank Moran on Thursday branded Singh's observations as "outrageous stereotyping" and pronounced himself "appalled." A local progressive organization called Singh's remarks "racist and classist." Social media was even more brutal.
"The article … is out of context, and certainly, the tone of it is incorrect," Singh told me by phone Thursday from his office in Camden.
"I have said publicly, during our groundbreaking, that the city has suffered from hereditary poverty. Society has not been fair to Camden. We need to work together to help people learn skills and become productive," Singh said.
"We are here to help. But yes, I'm going to speak openly and directly: They need to learn good work habits. When they get the job, they should come every morning to work and try to learn the skills. We are willing to make that investment."
In my nearly 40 years of reporting and writing about Camden, I've heard dozens upon dozens of promises about hundreds — make that, thousands — of jobs that new taxpayer-subsidized projects would deliver for people living in the city and region.
To put it charitably, most of those promises remain unfulfilled.
Lately, the big private companies receiving state tax credits are almost inevitably perceived as allied with or beholden to George E. Norcross 3d, whose own insurance firm's waterfront headquarters is under construction in the city in part due to $86 million in such incentives. Cooper University Health Care — which Norcross oversees as chairman of the Board of Trustees — received $40 million in credits as well.
In all, 24 firms locating or expanding in Camden have received a total of more than $1 billion in tax credits and incentives so far.
Fair or not, an association with Norcross makes recipients such as Singh, whose company got $260 million — and Joseph Balzano, whose European Metal Recycling (EMR Eastern) received $253 million — targets for criticism.
Particularly when these officials say things that sound … ungrateful.
And particularly when a member of Congress, who happens to be Norcross' brother, U.S Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.), also is part of the story.
Which brings us to what Singh, Balzano, and Donald Norcross were quoted as saying to ROI – NJ.
According to the story, the two businessmen said their firms have been having a tough time attracting, training, and retaining workers who live in Camden. Which the companies are not required to do, by the way.
Singh, a self-made millionaire, described a lack of job readiness among many Camden hires in terms that at best sound less-than-diplomatic, and at worst seem to echo nasty stereotypes about poor people, particularly, poor people of color.
Balzano, whose dad ran the South Jersey Port Corp. and was a Camden champion I much admired, is quoted as saying: "There's an expectation that, 'Well, I came to work today,' vs. the expectation to do something."
(If this is so, such workers sound rather like some members of the participation-award generation. But I digress.)
In the article, Donald Norcross blamed the difficulties the two firms are experiencing on generational poverty. And in a joint statement he issued Thursday with Moran, the congressman said Camden County College, vocational training, workforce development, and other programs are collaborating to prepare local residents for jobs.
Norcross told ROI-NJ that families and individuals have long "been on public assistance" and "have not had [employment] opportunities."
But the congressman's sociological blame-shifting drew the wrath of the organization South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, which issued a unsparing press release about the "racist and classist" remarks of the three men, "particularly" those of Norcross.
People can disagree about whether such labels apply. All I know is that in four decades of writing about Camden, I've met countless hardworking people, most of them people of color, who are as ambitious and aspirational as any people I've met or written about anywhere.
That said, city native and outreach worker Gary Samuels, of the street ministry Love What Never Gives Up, likened a company like Holtec complaining about the job readiness of local residents to "NASA coming to Camden and saying, 'Who here has been trained in space aviation? Who knows nuclear physics?' "
Singh told me 30 to 50 of the 150 employees involved in manufacturing at the plant in South Camden are from the city. Some were sent for training at Holtec's Ohio facility and others have learned on the job.
He said he hopes to have 300 people involved in manufacturing in Camden in the near future. "We are going to stick with this," he added.
The plague of economic and social ills that have long afflicted Camden, many but not all of them caused by forces beyond the control of the city or the people who live there, has been well-documented.
Its impact can be seen in the sky-high unemployment numbers that have been a fact of Camden life since the big corporations and companies that employed tens of thousands in the city folded up or took their jobs elsewhere starting in the 1950s.
More recently, those numbers have at least fallen from a post-crash high of 19.5 percent in July 2011 to 9.95 percent in July of this year.
So perhaps the hiring difficulties described by Singh and Balzano stem from more experienced, educated, and qualified city residents finding jobs elsewhere.
But with all due respect to these businessmen, and for that matter, to the congressman, if Holtec and Eastern Recycling are having such a hard time finding folks with Camden zip codes who are ready, willing, and able to work, then they need to do a better job of looking.
In other words, the companies need to work harder.