Business Coalition Calls Vo-Tech Schools Crucial to NJ’s Future

John Mooney | February 21, 2014 | Education
Group vows support, if not financial backing, for key generator of workforce of the future

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto
New Jersey’s vocational and technical schools got a big boost yesterday when a new coalition of more than 100 businesses said the schools should get the support — and funding – they need to keep preparing students for the workforce of the future.

Led by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, representatives of the New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education gathered for a Statehouse press conference and pledged to promote the importance of the county-run schools as they vie for their share of resources in a state with an abundance of educational needs.

“The bottom line is jobs are going unfilled in New Jersey because employers cannot find workers with the right skills,” said Melanie Willoughby, senior vice president of the NJBIA.

The business group’s expression of support for vo-tech schools comes at a time when the state’s funding for public education continues to stagnate, if not shrink, while a wide range of public schools vie for help. It also comes as the county schools – some of which now dominate the list of the state’s highest-performing schools — continue to shift to more career-oriented and advanced programs.

Vocational and technical schools have often felt they were getting short shrift in the state’s formula for aid to schools — and the timing of yesterday’s expression of support came less than a week before Gov. Chris Christie is to present his fiscal 2014 state budget.

School and business leaders didn’t mention the upcoming budget, but they did enlist some high-profile support for yesterday’s announcement with the presence of state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

“This is one of the things that is among my main focuses,” said Prieto, who is a plumber and code official by trade. “I come from the trades, and this is so important. Technology education is an economic engine for the state of New Jersey, a place for these individuals to have a different pathway.”

“Schools steer kids away from vocational schools, but the reason they are so important is every job is valuable and important,” said Sweeney, himself an ironworker by trade. “Schools often think about their scores and who goes to this or that (college), rather than what is the best fit for the student.“

Still, on the eve of the unveiling of the state budget, there were no assurances that vocational programs will fare any better than the rest of the public education sector in coming deliberations, and there were no overt pledges by the new coalition that it would be pitching in financially just yet, either.

“We’ll see,” said Judy Savage, director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational and Technical Schools, afterward about the possibility of future financial support from business and industry.

“We expressly said we were not asking them to pay to be part of the coalition,” she said. “That is not what this is about, but instead it’s about finding new ways to engage employers.”

Willoughby, the NJBIA vice president, added later that several companies, such as PSE&G and BMW, have already made financial contributions to vocational schools, and there may be more to come.

But she, too, said the focus was more on engaging businesses in supporting schools that can help them directly. The coalition cited a number of partnerships already under way in the schools.

She said the recent emphasis by the Christie administration and others on so-called “college and career readiness” in the new Common Core State Standards, and the associated testing, appears to have left out the career piece.

“It’s college readiness, but not really career readiness,” Willoughby said of the standards and testing. “When you talk about the Common Core, you are not really addressing someone in the hospital looking to a healthcare career or someone in an IT setting who needs to deal with the crisis of the moment.”

“We want them to be career-ready, as well as college-ready,” Willoughby said.