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By Anthony Birritteri

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a mother of four and former US Navy helicopter pilot who was on active duty for almost 10 years, said that a workforce labor shortage and access to affordable childcare are among the major challenges the US economy is facing today.

Speaking at this morning’s Meet the Decision Makers event hosted by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, Sherrill said, “I know all of you understand the economic significance of ensuring our workforce has access to quality childcare. This is even more important now because the No. 1 complaint I hear from businesses is that they don’t have enough people.”

Childcare in this country is a debacle, Sherrill said, adding that in half of US states infant care costs more than in-state college tuition. “So, women are faced with the choice: ‘Do I want to keep working and spend my full paycheck, or more, on childcare? Is it worth it for my family?’”

On the other side of the coin, Sherrill noted that if women take five years off from their careers to raise a family at the age of 26, for example, that represents a 20% decrease in their lifetime earnings. “Think about that! That’s around the age when you start making a name for yourself. That is when you are competing with your peers and setting your career path.

“This is critical to women in the workforce, but it is also critical to the country’s economic success because we are leaving $600 billion in GDP on the table compared to what other nations are doing when they invest in women in the workforce,” she explained.

Commenting that New Jersey has one of the worst childcare problems in the nation, Sherrill said she is pleased that Gov. Phil Murphy is using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to invest in childcare programs.

She pointed to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s (NJEDA) announcement last week that it was deploying $54.5 million of the more than $100 million in ARPA funds the state has set aside for childcare for a childcare facility improvements pilot program.

When traveling through New Jersey’s 11th district, which encompasses portions of Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties, Sherrill said she knows that the labor shortage is the biggest business concern in the region.

To help fix the crisis, she said she recently voted to advance the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) out of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“This is a crucial reauthorization to workforce development, job training, adult education, and youth employment programs. It will help workers get the skills they need in order to get good paying jobs while supporting our businesses in hiring the skilled employees they need. I will continue my advocacy of WIOA to make sure it passes,” she said.

Sherrill said she helped shape the National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Joe Biden last December, which would benefit the Picatinny Arsenal, the military research and manufacturing facility located on 6,400 acres of land in Jefferson and Rockaway townships in Morris County. This facility is one of largest employers in the region and brings in more than $1 billion to the local economy.

“Supporting Picatinny Arsenal in our defense budget is one of the critical things I am focusing on,” she said.

Asked by NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka what the federal government is doing to combat the exorbitant price of gasoline, Sherrill said, “We are working on this issue on every level that we can.”

“Releasing oil from the strategic petroleum reserve is something I advocated for early on. It did help to drive down gas prices,” she said. “However, what we are seeing now is refineries starting to increase their prices. We have reached out to the White House to see how we could get some of these refineries to be better actors.”

Sherrill said she and her colleagues are also pushing the White House to be engaged with other countries and organizations throughout the world. This means: working with OPEC; building liquified natural gas ports here in the US in order to ship LNG to Europe; encouraging Germany to stop shutting down its nuclear plants; and encouraging gas and oil companies here in the US to start drilling on portions of leased lands they hold and are permitted to drill on.

Despite all of these issues, Sherrill sees a resiliency in the US economy compared to the world.

“We were the first nation in the world to return to pre-pandemic economic numbers and now we are at virtually zero unemployment, with a US unemployment rate of 3.4%,” she said.