There is one thing that New Jersey’s public policy leaders all agree on: If our state expects to prosper in the global economy, we need to increase our efforts to create a highly skilled 21st century workforce.
The New Jersey Business & Industry Association is calling for a greater emphasis on career-focused education. The Legislature’s bipartisan manufacturing caucus wants to help build the highly technical workforce we need to stay competitive.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s education and labor transition committees focused on expansion of career and technical education (CTE) as a key workforce development issue.
And the capstone of this statewide commitment is Senate President Steve Sweeney’s “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act,” approved by the Senate by a vote of 36-1 on April 12.
The bond act would provide $500 million to expand career-training programs at county vocational-technical schools and county colleges. It would also provide $500 million for critical school security improvements that will enhance the safety of children in schools throughout the state.
Funding for more career and technical education will be a game-changer for workforce development in New Jersey.
And It will create new opportunities and options for thousands of high school students and adults looking for industry credentials and degrees to enter the workforce and advance their careers.
The ‘skills gap’
We’ve all heard about the “skills gap” — the discouraging perception that today’s high school and college graduates are ill equipped to succeed in the workplace, while employers struggle to fill well-paying jobs.
County vocational-technical schools respond to this need with innovative career and technical education programs for all types of students. These programs are in demand by students who need marketable job skills to launch their careers, and by college-bound students seeking to jump-start college and career preparation.
Today’s CTE equips students for successful career pathways, not for just one specific job. Students gain technical skills, work-based experience, and even industry credentials and college credits. CTE lets high school students explore their professional interests early on, while teaching them critical employment skills like collaboration, communication, creative thinking, and responsibility.
It’s not surprising that the demand for quality CTE is growing from students and their parents, as well as employers.
On a statewide average, county vocational-technical high schools receive 2.3 applications for every available seat. About 33,000 students currently attend vocational high schools.
But in 2017 alone, our schools had to turn away 17,000 applicants because we simply did not have the space for them.
The bond act will enable county vocational schools to expand facilities and add the high-tech equipment needed to prepare more students for lucrative careers that require technical certifications and some post-secondary education, but not necessarily a four-year college degree.
Developing a highly-trained workforce in growth industries like logistics, advanced manufacturing, aviation, energy, construction, and healthcare is critical to New Jersey’s future economic growth.
Providing these programs at the county level is cost-effective and builds on the existing relationships between county vocational-technical schools, county colleges, and our many business partners.
Employers, educators, workforce organizations, and county leaders must all be involved in developing a plan to address regional economic needs and technical education opportunities for all types of students.
If New Jersey is serious about creating a stronger workforce, we must make a strategic investment in smart planning to prepare our students for careers as well as college. Senate President Sweeney’s bond-act proposal would be a major step toward achieving that essential goal and ensuring our state’s economic future.