As New Jersey fights its way back from the great recession, many businesses say they plan to take on more workers in 2014. Unfortunately, many of those employers will have a hard time filling these jobs because too many applicants don’t have the combination of academic, technical and workplace skills needed.
That’s why NJBIA has formed a new coalition with the NJ Council of County Vocational Technical Schools to directly involve employers in educating high school students. It’s called the NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education and we just had the official launch in February with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
New Jersey’s education system is doing a great job preparing our students academically for college, but often that means overlooking other skills, like teamwork, real-world experience, problem-solving and personal responsibility.
Also, traditional academics-only programs are not for everyone. A 2011 study by Harvard University found that a large number of drop-outs left school because their classes were “not interesting” and that high school was “unrelentingly boring.” They don’t think that it is “relevant” or provides “a pathway to achieving their dreams.”
There may be another way to reach those students. The Harvard report suggests that high-quality, employer-driven high school career and technical education programs can do a better job of preparing many students for college and careers.
New Jersey has a strong system of 21 county vocational-technical schools that provide the kinds of programs highlighted in the study. These public schools integrate rigorous academic content along with technical and work readiness skills, and help prepare over 32,000 high school students for the world of work and for college.
These are not the vocational schools of the past. In fact, some of them are among the best high schools in the state. They offer a wide range of options for all types of students, from specialized academies in engineering, health sciences and information technology, to technical programs in construction, digital media, culinary arts, manufacturing and dozens of other areas.
The success of vocational-technical schools can be measured by the demand for their programs by students and parents. And that demand vastly exceeds the space available. Statewide, these schools receive an average of 2.5 applications for each available seat, and placement in some programs is even more competitive. Last year, almost 17,000 students who wanted to attend could not be accommodated.
Because vocational-technical school programs are employment-focused, their students graduate high school with a better idea of what is expected of them in the workplace. As part of these programs, hundreds of businesses have provided students with work experience, taught classes from the point of view of a business owner, or helped design programs and update curriculum to reflect industry trends.
With this approach, students graduate with strong technical foundations in fields they love. They also learn what we call “soft skills” that are valuable in any workplace—skills like problem-solving, working together as a team, and having a professional demeanor and attitude.
The NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education wants to increase the school-business partnerships that have proven so successful. The coalition is in a position to foster these partnerships by recruiting businesses to participate and to match them with the right schools.
We plan to be a major voice in the upcoming public policy debate about our state’s economic future, and encourage all employers and public officials who share these concerns to join us.