“For a long time, a lot of parents thought of vocational education as something that might be good for someone else’s child, but they want their child to go to college,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Technical Schools. “But, I feel like the pendulum is starting to swing back.”
It’s not just swinging back, education leaders are jumping at opportunities to expand vocational options for students. Last year alone, more than 15,000 students were turned away from county technical schools due to lack of space. That’s something legislators hope to fix by forming the New Jersey Manufacturing Caucus.
“Here’s 15,000 kids who want to go on to a trade whether its a hairstylist or an auto mechanic, a welder, an electrician, a carpenter whatever they want, and they can’t get into a program. It’s a problem,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
The bi-partisan caucus, to be chaired by Senator Bob Gordon, is the brainchild of business, tech, vocational and manufacturing advocates. Its job is to figure out a way to bring more programs that develop middle-skilled workers and fill manufacturing jobs that are left vacant.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity here to expand the kind of programs that can prepare young people for these middle skill jobs that do require a high degree of sophistication in tech, but they don’t necessarily require a four-year degree,” said Savage.
“If we only bring our economy up to the growth levels of the national average because we’ve been lagging in the post-recovery period, if we can just get to the national average we can create 250,000 new jobs and add $170 billion in economic activity to our economy,” said Sen. Gordon.
One way to do it? A bond referendum on the Nov. 2018 ballot. Senate President Sweeney Tuesday pitched the idea as a way to ensure the state’s future economic growth and prosperity. The numbers are still being tallied, but the bond will probably come in around a few hundred million dollars to expand the schools.
“Giving counties the ability to say here’s 75 percent, you put up 25 percent you expand. It’s needed. It’s an investment in the economy that’s greatly needed,” said Sweeney.
“There are 10,552 manufacturers in New Jersey and they employ 358,000 people. An average of 34 per,” added John Kennedy, president and CEO of New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, Inc. “But, that 34 per do 5-10 times as much as they did many years ago. But that’s a lot of people.”
And, the jobs out there pay pretty well such as upper middle-class incomes in industries like Biopharma, health tech, information technology. Not just the hands trades we once knew.
Melanie Willoughby, chief government affairs officer for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said, “We have many manufacturers that are family owned businesses that are here and solid and that have been here for decades and committed and are looking to grow and expand. But their biggest problem is being able to find a skilled workforce.”
The first meeting of the caucus will be held next month in Paterson, once known as the birthplace of industry. Senator Gordon says it will develop a legislative package to be considered in December.