With Vo-Techs Turning away Students, Lawmakers Consider Bond Issue

Referendum is likely a year off, but manufacturers are already saying they have more job openings than skilled workers, adding urgency to the initiative

Senate President Stephen Sweeney talks about need to expand county vocational-technical schools to meet growing student demand at a news conference in the State House yesterday.
Demand for vocational-technical training is on the rise across the state, but there’s not enough space available now in existing school facilities to meet the demand. So lawmakers are considering going before voters to ask for approval of a new state bond issue to help cover the cost of expanding the state’s network of 21 county vo-tech high schools.

The idea of floating a vo-tech bond issue was just announced yesterday, and a referendum is likely more than a year off, but lawmakers say they also have a sense of urgency because leaders of New Jersey’s manufacturing industry have been indicating for some time that they need more skilled workers to fill job openings.

A final figure for the proposed bond sale has yet to be determined, but lawmakers should get a better idea over the next several weeks as a newly impaneled legislative “manufacturing caucus” begins to hold hearings on what can be done in New Jersey to better support the state’s manufacturing industry.

More students than seats

In addition to reviewing the issue of increasing demand for training at county vocational-technical schools — some 15,000 applicants were turned away last year — the 14-member bipartisan caucus will also be looking at ways to improve coordination between manufacturing firms and New Jersey’s technology universities and county colleges. And the panel is also slated to review state economic tax-incentive programs.

The new effort to boost New Jersey’s manufacturing sector is drawing praise from industry leaders and vo-tech officials, whose schools already serve an estimated 33,000 students statewide.

“This is very exciting for us,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools during a news conference in the State House yesterday.

The Legislature’s new focus on manufacturing comes as the New Jersey economy has continued to show slow but steady progress coming out of the Great Recession, with an unemployment rate now that now sits at 4.1 percent, which is below the national jobless average. It also comes as President Donald Trump has been promoting a new economic agenda at the national level that seems to favor U.S.-based manufacturers. But the state effort is not directly linked to Trump’s American Manufacturing Council, which has been in the news in recent days after several members quit to protest Trump’s initial reaction to the recent violence fueled by white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, a reaction that many have viewed as half-hearted and timid.

NJ: the manufacturing state

New Jersey has a rich manufacturing history, and at one point during the past century, half of New Jersey’s total jobs were in manufacturing, with industries like textiles and telecommunications booming. Although there’s been some decline since then, manufacturing is still a more than $40 billion industry in New Jersey, with 8,000 companies employing nearly 250,000 people, according to data compiled by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. Manufacturing jobs in New Jersey also pay wages that are nearly 20 percent higher than those in the fields of finance, insurance, and real estate, and 24 percent higher than the average wage in manufacturing nationally, according to NJBIA data.

Yet many companies, especially those that rely on skilled workers, have been raising concerns about not being able to find enough skilled employees to fill their current job openings.

“Their biggest problem is to be able to find a skilled workforce,” said Melanie Willoughby, the NJBIA’s chief government affairs officer. “Manufacturers have a tremendous number of jobs that are going unfilled right now.”

Unmet demand

Expanding the state’s network of county vocational-technical schools, which serve both full-time high school students and adults seeking new skills, could help fill the void, especially since there is already evidence of an unmet demand among students who are looking for technical training at the county level, said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

“Not everyone is meant to go to college,” said Sweeney, who is himself a career ironworker. “There’s nothing wrong with learning a trade.”

While enrollment at county vocational-technical schools is up by 34 percent since 2000, more than 15,000 students who applied to attend a vo-tech last year were turned away due to a lack of space, according to the Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

A former freeholder director in Gloucester County, Sweeney pointed to his own experiences with Gloucester County’s Institute of Technology while advocating for the new bond issue, which would likely go before voters in 2018. Sweeney said he envisions funds from a state bond sale totaling several hundred million dollars being paired with matching county funds being used to cover the cost of expanding facilities and buying new equipment for vo-techs across the state.

“Every single kid that wants to go to a vocational program should be given the opportunity to go to a vocational school,” Sweeney said.

The legislative manufacturing caucus will be led by Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), whose own background includes working in his family’s former yarn mill in Paterson. The first caucus hearing is scheduled for early next month in Paterson.

Other legislators picked to serve on the manufacturing panel include Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr. (R-Monmouth), Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), Ron Rice (D-Essex), and Bob Singer (R-Ocean); and Assembly members Anthony Bucco Jr. (R-Morris), Nick Chiaravalotti (D-Hudson), Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R-Burlington), Adam Taliaferro (D-Gloucester), Benjamin Wimberly (D-Passaic), and Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex).

Flourishing trades

Gordon said manufacturing industries like the warehousing and logistics sector are already flourishing in New Jersey, due to its geographic location. But even more can be done to support a shift toward more high-tech, advanced manufacturing, a point that was also made in a recent evaluation of the state economy that was released last month by international management consultant McKinsey & Co. Gordon also said the manufacturing caucus could look to emulate successful programs that other states are already running to support their manufacturing sectors.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Gordon said.

The goal is to put together a package of bills geared toward improving the state’s overall business climate for manufacturers by the time the Legislature reconvenes after the election this fall.

Bucco, whose family background also involves manufacturing, suggested the panel’s efforts will build on progress the state has already made in recent years in the wake of the Great Recession.

“Manufacturing startups are an area that we can produce middle-class jobs, and we will help provide the training and education necessary to fill those positions,” he said. “I look forward to serving on the committee and working on a bipartisan basis to further promote our state’s economy.”