NJ’s Missing Apprentices: State Urged to Do More to Increase their Number

New Jersey compares poorly with other states when it comes to supporting apprenticeship programs. Report urges policymakers to introduce robust incentives

Credit: The Apprentice School
A leading social-justice organization is calling on the state to create more apprenticeship opportunities for New Jersey students and adults, arguing such programs would address wide income disparities faced by women and minorities while also boosting the overall state economy.

A report released last week by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice spotlights a number of programs that have been created in other states to foster apprenticeships that often lead to lifetime careers offering good pay and full benefits.

The group’s report also suggests a number of ways New Jersey policymakers could do more to establish more robust apprenticeship programs, including creating new programs within schools to encourage students to get into careers based on a specific skill or trade and offering new tax credits to companies for hiring apprentices to work alongside their skilled employees.

The report’s release comes as Gov. Phil Murphy has been trying to remake the state’s economic policies by emphasizing more investment in key areas like technology and startups. Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has also launched a $10 million apprenticeship program through the Department of Labor to encourage more students to consider a career that requires on-the-job training. Two members of the Murphy administration, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo participated in a call with reporters last week to highlight the apprenticeship report and its key recommendations.

Where New Jersey lags

“There is no doubt in New Jersey that we have struggled with the issue of having communities of color and women involved in the skilled trades,” Oliver said.

The latest state unemployment figures indicate a mixed bag for the New Jersey economy, as unemployment is at an 11-year low of 4.2 percent, but also remains higher than the national jobless average of 3.9 percent. A shrinking state labor force and persistent long-term unemployment also remain issues for New Jersey, according to the data.

The new report on apprenticeships also tells a story of wide income inequality in New Jersey, with the gap between the very rich and everyone else particularly troubling for women and minority communities. It also highlights a problem that many New Jersey companies have complained about — a shortage of skilled workers to fill all the positions that they currently have open. In many cases, those vacant positions don’t require as a prerequisite a college degree — which is becoming increasingly difficult to afford — but instead someone who has participated in a specific job-training or certification program.

According to the report, that’s where an increased emphasis on apprenticeships can play a major role. “Apprenticeship programs can be incorporated into nearly every industry, can be designed to assist dislocated and displaced workers in connecting with new career fields, and can help people who face structural and other barriers connect to employment,” the report said.

A North Carolina initiative is highlighted as a good example of what could be created in New Jersey to encourage more students to participate in an apprenticeship program as a way to establish a career. The initiative, called Apprenticeship 2000, links high-school juniors and seniors with training programs that result in them becoming qualified as machinists, injection-molding technicians, or for some other skilled position while also receiving a degree from a community college.

Start in middle school?

A similar apprenticeship program in Michigan helps direct students into the automotive and transportation industries, according to the report.

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One of the recommendations directed at policymakers in New Jersey — which the report rates poorly in state-by-state comparisons — is for students to be guided into career apprenticeships as early as middle school. The report also calls for the trainees to be paid as they work toward an industry-required credential, a key issue for many low-income students.

Outside of the school system, the report also recommends the state provide funding to establish individual apprenticeship programs in central, north and South Jersey for adults. They could help guide the adults into new careers in fast-growing industries like transportation, logistics and distribution, a sector that includes the state’s flourishing warehouse industry.

Another recommendation is for the creation of a state tax-incentive program that would provide businesses that employ apprentices with a $1,000 tax credit for each one they employ. The tax credits would also be worth more for apprentices from certain groups, including veterans and those who right now are underrepresented in a specific industry.

Pathway out of poverty

“These tax credits should either be gradually increased over time, or indexed to inflation, so that they remain strong incentives for businesses to employ and train apprentices in New Jersey,” the report said.

On the call with reporters last week, Ryan Haygood, the group’s president and chief executive, called the report “a blueprint for businesses, labor unions, community colleges, nonprofits and other groups interested in starting their own apprenticeship programs.”

Asaro-Angelo stressed the importance of improving apprenticeship opportunities and said the Murphy administration is in the process of establishing the state’s new apprenticeship network.

“We know that apprenticeships are the great pathway for folks out of poverty into a career path, with good pay and good benefits that can improve their lives, their families’ lives and the community around them,” he said.

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