It’s 14-year-old Will Kwietniak’s third summer at Excite Camp.
“You learn a lot during this whole week, and the instructors are great. Pretty much you can get any skill you want here pretty much,” said Kwietniak.
The Hunterdon County Vocational School District runs Excite: Explore Careers in Technology and Engineering. Kwietniak spent one summer in culinary arts and another in automotive technology. Literally and figuratively, sparks flew for Kwietniak in this program.
“I knew I wanted to do something with my hands, I just didn’t know what yet and now I found that,” Kwietniak said. “I found that I like welding a lot, and working on cars, and with metal and machines.”
“Find your own passion, and that’s going to complement our economy and our nation,” said Tanya Nalesnik, Hunterdon County Vocational School District assistant business administrator.
Nalesnik says enrollment for Excite Camp has tripled, rivaling the demand for vocational education here. That’s led to a growing waiting list and highlighting a demand to add programs and more physical space.
“Vocational school districts are so critical to our economy because we’re doing the other end. We’re teaching them and giving them the exposure to those jobs and options and then giving them the skill sets once they hone in and figure out which pathway they want to take,” Nalesnik said.
To educators, that success is being stifled across New Jersey because the equation needs more green. State lawmakers cooked up a bill to have November voters decide whether to borrow $1 billion for schools, $400 million of that to expand vo-tech high schools.
“It is critical that we receive this funding. I just spent a week in North Carolina looking at options there. Booming. The economic investments that are happening outside the state have to happen in New Jersey,” said Nalesnik.
Lawmakers have served the bill, that also would upgrade school security and water systems, to Gov. Phil Murphy and it awaits his action. But the manufacturing industry and the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools say the demand, and vo-tech schools in all 21 counties, can’t wait because technical jobs are going unfilled in New Jersey. One report says it’s getting worse.
“We’ve got an exceptional county vocational technical school system, but unfortunately it’s at capacity,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. “Last year, our schools turned away 17,000 students who wanted to come to a vocational school for career exploration and training, and we can’t afford to be doing that in New Jersey.”
The bond bill sailed through the Legislature with near-unanimous approval. But with the state already $46 billion in debt, will voters approve putting the state another billion dollars in the hole?
“This is going to pay a return that’s going to benefit all of our taxpayers and benefits our state. Students will earn higher wages. Employers will be able to expand,” Savage said. “At the same time, an investment in career and technical education is going to save taxpayers money on college debt. We have way too many students and families that are in debt for college tuition that they pursue without a real career plan.”
State Sen. Steve Oroho is one of the sponsors of the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act.
“I’m concerned about debt, but not all debt is bad debt. I mean, if you have a debt that has a high return on your investment, which education has a high return on investment,” Oroho said.
The challenge for advocates is if the issue does go to the ballot, will voters see it as investing in children and the state’s future or will they put the brakes on growing the state’s debt?