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Job Training Shifts to 'Middle Skills' to Put Millennials Back to Work

With the National Center for Education Statistics reporting that average tuition at a public four-year college climbed by more than 250 percent over the past three decades and the average borrower graduates with nearly $30,000 in debt, fewer high school students can go to college, even if they want to.

Manufacturing Jobs: Not All Lost Overseas

“For the last 40 years we’ve been hearing lies that manufacturing is dead and gone,” said John Kennedy, CEO of the nonprofit New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP). “We’re very active.”

According to the United Nations, the U.S. remains the second-largest manufacturing country in the world.

And he doesn’t just say that because of where he works. Almost anyone who follows employment trends will say manufacturing is not only active in New Jersey, it’s in critical need of employees to keep it going. According to some estimates, 50,000 New Jersey manufacturing jobs remain unfilled; across the country, it’s closer to 500,000.

Kennedy and his peers in the business and training community say most of these manufacturing companies are small -- 50 employees or fewer -- and that in New Jersey they tend toward production of chemicals (mainly fragrances), foodstuffs, specialty plastics, and metal parts.

So why can’t this sector find people to hire?

The problem is that many small manufacturing businesses lack sophisticated outreach efforts, leading to the bigger issue that job-seekers don’t realize they’re there. “People aren’t going into the industry because they’ve been told for 40 years that there are no jobs,” said Kennedy. “Plus, people think these jobs are for the guy standing in front of a dirty machine.”

The misperception ignores all the technical, digital, sales, service, supply-chain, managerial, and front-office duties that need trained minds to perform them. And small companies don’t have the capacity to provide needed training themselves.

Beginning this summer, the NJMEP will directly connect 18-22-year-old job-seekers with open manufacturing positions through its free state-wide program, “Experience Manufacturing.” In order to introduce prospective employees to the manufacturing field, staff members will match job applicants with participating firms in need of that applicant’s experience and skill set. It’s then up to the company to determine whether or not to hire that applicant.

It’s one way to get around the fact that because the public still believes that more education equals more job opportunity, ambitious parents tend to steer their kids toward university instead of an associate’s degree or certificate program that might provide more practical – and employable -- skills.

“The wage differential between high school and college graduates is half-a-million dollars over a lifetime, so there’s still reason to go to college,” said New Jersey Institute of Technology Executive Director of Career Development Services Greg Mass. “But there has to be a greater connection between education and its purpose. Whether it’s at the college or high-school level, much work needs to be done in ensuring students possess the skills that are in demand in today’s highly technological workplace.”

The Apprentice

“The goal is to have youth come out of school prepared for the jobs that exist,” said Baldwin, echoing a refrain spoken by almost everyone who works in youth-skills training. Baldwin’s involved because last month her boss (Booker) introduced a bipartisan (U.S.) Senate bill that would expand the use of apprenticeships by extending a new federal tax credit to participating employers.

According to information distributed by his office, only 0.2 percent of the American workforce participates in 21,000 registered apprenticeships, most of which are run by the Department of Labor (DOL) or local trade unions. A modern apprenticeship registered by the DOL gives an apprentice a paid, short-term, supervised job at a participating company; at the end of the term, the apprentice receives a national credential that certifies his or her proficiency.

Saying that “Benefits of the registered apprenticeship . . . include incremental wage increases, improved skills, career advancement, enhanced retention, and increased productivity,” Booker’s staff prepared a bill that would give companies a $1,500 tax credit for hiring each apprentice younger than 25 (the credit for older apprentices is $1,000). The credit would be offset by savings realized from a provision that bars the federal government from printing publications that are otherwise available online, with exceptions for certain populations.

Booker’s office reports $240,000 greater career earnings for registered apprentices who receive their certification. Young Invincibles found that registered apprenticeships generate $50 in government revenue for every federal dollar invested and that every dollar invested in an apprentice returns $1.40 to the employer.

Plus, the experience alone may prove priceless.

“We can’t emphasize enough the importance of students gaining job skills through summer internships, research or cooperative programs. Anything students can do to get job experience on their resume is going to be critically important,” said Mass. Though he was speaking specifically about middle-tier college students, his analysis holds true when applied to any young jobseeker.

Don’t Call It Vo-Tech

In the past, vo-tech schools were places where boards of education dumped high school students with few academic aspirations or multiple behavioral problems. These days, New Jersey’s 21 county-run career and technical education schools have somewhat shed that stigma by transforming their mission from one that taught individual students a few job skills to one that prepares students for life-long career advancement. Not only do they require students to graduate with the same core academic credits as their mainstream peers, but also they have to earn a professional certificate while they’re there. They see a far greater number of high-achieving students who may well continue on to college, and they teach soft skills like team-work and punctuality.

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