Business Task Force Hopes to Transform New Jersey into Millennial Magnet

The Garden State has the highest millennial outmigration in the country, but attention to education, tuition, and vocational training could go a long way to turning things around

New Jersey business leaders have been concerned for a while about the number of millennials that leave the state once they finish high school. After studying the issue more closely over the past year, a business group has come up with a multifaceted plan to keep more millennials in New Jersey, and to even entice those living in other states to move here.

A new report issued yesterday by a task force that was organized by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association lists more than a dozen recommendations to address the state’s standing as the worst in the country when it comes to losing high-school graduates to other places.

They range from improving the affordability of a public-college education in New Jersey to just doing a better job of promoting the different well-paying career opportunities that exist here. Other recommendations include widening job-skill training programs provided through community colleges and vocational-technical schools, and encouraging teachers and guidance counselors to help students with basic job skills like resume writing.

The task force’s findings generally come back to the issues of “affordability and attract-ability,” said Michele Siekerka, NJBIA’s president and chief executive, during a conference call yesterday.

Members of the task force include representatives from the business, government and education sectors, as well as members of the millennial community itself. While some of the recommendations may require cooperation from state lawmakers to enact new policy changes, such as a proposed bond issue that would raise funds to expand vocational-technical facilities, others will simply require more collaboration between the business and education communities.

“Our next step is to have discussions with our policymakers on our recommendations,” Siekerka said.

Meet the millennials

Millennials as a group are generally defined as having been born between the early 1980s and 2000, and there are an estimated 70 million nationally. But between 2007 and 2016, according to the task force’s report, more than 1 million millennials left New Jersey for other states, while 866,506 came into to New Jersey from other states or countries. That resulted in a net loss of 183,591, and NJBIA has determined New Jersey has the highest rate of millennial outmigration in the country.

A prior NJBIA study of outmigration trends also found that millennials were leaving the state at the highest rate of any single group, outpacing even seniors. While lawmakers worked with former Gov. Chris Christie to address the senior-outmigration issue by doing things like repealing the estate tax and increasing state income-tax exemptions for things like pensions and IRAs, less has been done to take on the millennial-outmigration problem.

The new task force report suggests the stakes are high since the loss of New Jersey’s millennials squanders the significant investment that state taxpayers make in the students’ K-12 education, which on average costs over $20,000 per-pupil annually. The outmigration issue also impacts the business community and labor pool since college students tend to find jobs after they graduate in or near where they went to college.

Tuition at four-year colleges

On the issue of four-year colleges, the report recommends that more be done to address the high cost of going to college in New Jersey, citing College Board statistics that rank New Jersey the fourth most-expensive state to attend a four-year public college or university. The task force also highlighted a decline in state support for public colleges and universities that occurred between 1991 and 2016, coinciding with student costs increasing by 142 percent.

“Millennials are facing unprecedented college debt as tuition rates continue to rise while state funding for public colleges and universities has decreased significantly over the past 25 years,” the report said.

While the task force calls for “responsible and consistent investment by government into post-secondary education,” it also suggests there are other opportunities to generate savings for students. They include streamlining the transfer process so that students don’t have to retake a large number of classes, and by reducing the need for students to take remedial courses when they get to college.

Reducing ‘societal stigma’

But a big focus of the report was also directed at finding ways to take on a “societal stigma” that currently exists for students who may be better suited to purse a vocational-technical education instead of going to college and getting a bachelor’s degree. The report cites a recent Georgetown University study that found nearly half of those in the New Jersey workforce who don’t have a college degree are earning more than $55,000, the second-highest percentage in the country.

“While attending college may be the right decision for some students, for others, attending college simply does not benefit their skill sets,” the report said. “In order to understand the various training and postsecondary options available to them, students need increased exposure to career pathways at a younger age.”

To improve career-focused education, the task force recommends that the state should be working to promote and expand apprenticeship and internship programs, and to create employer-driven curricula and training programs. School guidance counselors and teachers also need more training on career awareness, and schools themselves should be assisting with resume writing and holding mock job interviews, the task force said.

Not enough classroom seats

The report also highlighted a growing concern in many parts of the state about a lack of available classroom space at county vocational-technical high schools, even as demand for career training is rising. Lawmakers have begun talking about floating a significant state bond issue to raise money to help the county vocational-technical high schools expand their facilities, and Siekerka said the NJBIA strongly supports that effort.

“This is something that needs attention,” she said.

The task force also concluded that part of the state’s problem is simply insufficient promotion of all of the things New Jersey has to offer millennials, and it recommends a branding effort that would highlight the numerous career pathways and opportunities that students have in the Garden State. That effort would include featuring higher education, but also skill-building programs and career pathways.

“There’s tremendous innovation going on in higher education in New Jersey, but we’re not shining a bright enough light on it,” Siekerka said as an example.