Giving State’s Vo-Techs the Space — and Seats — to Accommodate More Students

Proposed bond issue would help vocational-technical schools deliver what New Jersey manufacturers need most, skilled workers that will help them flourish

The number of high school students seeking a vocational-technical education instead of going the college-prep route is rising in New Jersey, a trend that comes as many companies are looking for workers with specific skills instead of a college degree. Vocational-technical high schools in all 21 counties could help bridge the gap, but they’ve been facing a space crunch, so state lawmakers are stepping in with a proposed bond issue that would help pay for new classrooms and other facilities.

Under legislation that was approved by a key Senate committee last week, the state would issue $500 million in general-obligation bonds to help county vocational-technical high schools and community colleges expand their technical-education programs or create new ones.

The proposed bond issue follows a series of hearing held in recent months by a legislative “manufacturing caucus” that was organized by lawmakers to update state regulations and policies governing New Jersey’s rebounding manufacturing industry. One of the key issues that came up repeatedly during the caucus hearings was how economic growth in New Jersey is being held back because many companies simply can’t find enough employees with the right technical skills to fill their job openings, even as the demand for vocational-technical education is surging in New Jersey.

“Here’s an opportunity for us to fix that,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), who’s serving as the manufacturing panel’s leader. “This is really something that is critical.”

The proposed bond issue already has bipartisan backing in the Legislature, and Gov. Phil Murphy has previously signaled his support for the idea as well. But it would ultimately be up to New Jersey voters to decide whether to sign off on the new borrowing, with a public question going on the ballot as soon as this fall.

More students than seats

According to officials from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools who testified during the manufacturing-caucus hearings, more than 30,000 students across the state filed applications last year to attend one of the county vo-tech high schools. But only a little more than 12,000 students statewide were accepted, primarily due to space constraints. A recent needs assessment determined that it would take nearly $900 million in spending by the vo-tech districts to meet all construction, renovation, and equipment needs across the state, but their primary source of funding is local property taxes, which are already at a record high.

Under the proposed bond issue, which has been dubbed the “Career and Technical Education Bond Act,” a total of $450 million would be raised specifically for the vocational-technical schools by issuing debt that would be paid off by state taxpayers. Another $50 million would be raised to fund program expansions at county colleges.

If approved by voters, the bond proceeds would be used to provide state grants to the schools, with those meeting certain requirements getting a preference. Those requirements include offering “stackable credentials,” which give students the opportunity to obtain industry-recognized training certificates while also putting them on a course to complete more advanced training or to receive a bachelor’s degree. Also getting preference would be vocational-technical high schools that have a partnership with a county college offering similar training programs, and county colleges that have such relationships with a vocational-technical high school. Schools and colleges that have agreements with a private company to help train existing or future employees would also be given a preference.

Distributing the funds

The legislation would also empower the commissioners of Education and Labor, and the state Higher Education secretary, to establish the procedures for doling out the funding that would be raised through the proposed bond sale.

Joining Gordon as prime sponsors of the bill are Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex). Oroho, who is also a member of the manufacturing caucus, said he signed on as a bipartisan sponsor to help make sure New Jersey’s employers continue to have access to the highly skilled workers that they need to be successful.

“It’s not just the education piece, it’s the economic-impact piece,” Oroho said.

Getting the bond issue before voters this November will also require a signature from Murphy, who has been emphasizing economic growth and workforce-development issues since taking office in January. A spokeswoman for Murphy declined comment on the proposed bond act on Friday, citing the governor’s general policy of not weighing in on pending legislation. But Murphy spoke generally in favor of the concept of new borrowing to improve workforce-development facilities when it was first raised as a possibility by lawmakers last summer as the first-term Democrat was still in the midst of his successful run for governor.

“We like it. Anything in the vocational-technical (and) community college space, you should assume that we’re all-in for,” Murphy said in September.

If the bond issue does eventually make it onto the ballot in the fall, it would be the biggest proposed bond sale to go before New Jersey voters since 2012, when they gave approval to the sale of $750 million in bonds to fund the construction of higher-educational facilities for two- and four-year colleges and universities. A $125 million bond issue to support local library improvements across the state also won approval at the ballot box last year.

Keeping abreast of new technology

New Jersey is already one of the most indebted states in the United States, but Gordon suggested the bond sale should be looked at as an investment in the state economy. He said its passage would also help New Jersey keep pace with other states that have figured out ways to support manufacturing as the industry becomes increasingly more reliant on computers and other new technology.

“Other states have been able to find the right formula for this, and there’s no reason we can’t,” he said.

Oroho stressed that it will ultimately be up to the voters to determine whether the bonds should be issued.

“It’s incumbent upon us to explain why it’s necessary,” he said.

But even though the bond issue has bipartisan backing, Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, another GOP member of the manufacturing caucus, urged lawmakers last week to do more than just back the new borrowing as that proposal went before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last week. Many in the manufacturing industry have also said they want regulatory relief, and a reprieve from Murphy’s call for a $15 minimum wage, said O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).

“We heard many other things from them, things that they were afraid of,” he said. “It sends a conflicting message, and a convenient one, when we don’t respond to them about the things they oppose.”