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Job Training Shifts to 'Middle Skills' to Put Millennials Back to Work

“The beauty of these kinds of programs, particularly at the high-school level, is that they take all kinds of students and give them a way to connect academics with practical applications in a career-focused setting,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational–Technical Schools.

Administrators develop curricula, budgets, and equipment wish-lists by working with an advisory board comprising industry professionals and local community investment boards to stay current with emerging job trends and required proficiencies. This way, when a county’s big automotive plant upgrades to a new generation of machinery, classroom teachers can train students how to use it. Lately, the schools focus much of their energy on healthcare; culinary arts; STEM training for computer-assisted design, pre-engineering, digital media, and so forth; and a discipline called mechatronics, which is an approach to designing products that typically incorporate “smart” features like sensors and digital controls.

But there’s one major obstacle: capacity.

The NJ Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) found that last year that the county-funded vocational technical schools turned away 17,000 applicants. So together with NJBIA Savage’s group cofounded the NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education, a partnership of 150 leaders from business, education, labor, and government who come together to meet “the skilled labor challenges of today’s global economy.”

The coalition:

  • favors state policy that “supports multiple pathways to success rather than a one-size-fits-all college preparatory mindset”

  • wants the state to help counties pay for facility expansions

  • encourages the business community to partner with these schools to address the needs of each county’s pool of employers

  • recommends joint ventures between vocational technical schools and county colleges to identify needs in key industry sectors and create career pathways for out-of-school youth

“It’s something different because businesses of all sizes are coming together to lead this,” said Andrew Musick who runs the program for the NJBIA. “Employability skills are a big issue for companies across all industries.”

What About Community Colleges?

Last week, the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development officially launched the first two mobile training labs in the state – and two of the only ones in the country. The six-ton tractor trailers travel separately to community colleges to set up for 10-person classes where students can use computers and training equipment to learn metal fabrication or mechatronics and earn a professional certification at the end. Funded by a grant from the federal Department of Labor, the curricula were developed with help from the business community and aim to teach skills that can be applied to many different manufacturing positions.

The consortium also runs static programs that are more individually tailored to the needs of county-level businesses. As part of the Training on Demand Program, for example, staff scours local jobs openings and calls on companies to determine what types of skills are most needed in the marketplace. Once staff enlists leaders in those industries to help design specific programs and commit to hiring its graduates, the consortium launches a tailor-made training course at the closest county college.

“Manufacturing companies are willing to take people with very limited experiences as long as they have technical competencies and they understand the manufacturing process,” said Sivaraman Anbarasan, executive director of the consortium. “We’re trying to fill that gap.”

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