While the labor shortage has made headlines both locally and nationwide in recent months, many New Jerseyans have been seizing the opportunity to invest in career development opportunities in order to attain new credentials or change career paths. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s never been more important to be willing to pursue these opportunities as companies are seeking employees with training in everything from critical thinking and problem solving to data and technology.
“It used to be that you went to high school and college, and then you’d go out and get a job, but that’s not the reality we live in anymore. And gone are the days when companies can open their doors and easily find the talented and skilled workers they need,” says Aaron R. Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC).
That’s why organizations like the NJCCC are striving to stay one step ahead of an ever-changing economy and provide residents with the opportunities they need to either enhance their professional skills or change careers. “Our goal is to constantly reinvest in people to help them stay competitive,” Fichtner adds. “A lot of people put their lives on hold during the pandemic, but we’re seeing more interest in the kinds of programs that can prepare people for career paths in manufacturing and technology to cutting-edge fields like game design, cybersecurity and app development.”
Organizations such as Focus NJ, an independent non-profit that conducts economic and workforce research to support public policy in New Jersey, are also working to help residents pinpoint the future needs of the labor market. “The landscape of our workforce looking forward is a lot different than what we thought it would be due to the pandemic, so we’re focused on understanding trends like AI, the types of jobs that are going to be phased in or out, and making sure that students from the K-12 level and beyond have an understanding of the skills that are going to be in demand 5, 10 or 15 years from now,” explains Kyle Sullender, executive director of Focus NJ.
To that end, the state’s educational institutions have been forging strong partnerships with local businesses and industries to stay on the pulse of exactly what New Jersey employers are looking for, as well as which employment opportunities are most in demand now and in the coming years. According to Jackie Burke, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, career and technical education (CTE) programs continuously evolve in response to workforce and employer demands.
“County vocational-technical school districts rely on industry partners, labor market data, and regional needs assessments to guide career program offerings and curriculum to ensure they’re meeting New Jersey’s current workforce needs and preparing students for the careers of the future,” she explains. “Employers throughout New Jersey are rightfully concerned about their future workforce, and county vocational-technical schools seek to work with them to build a strong pipeline of highly-skilled workers who will keep small and large businesses thriving.”
Burke notes that schools meet that critical need through an active partnership with employers who advise on curriculum, mentor students, and provide internships and other work-based learning opportunities for students in various career programs, from internships to apprenticeships. Additionally, the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act was approved in 2018 and is providing $275 million to county vocational-technical schools so that they can add new programs and increase enrollment; the first round of 17 approved projects will add almost 5,000 seats in high-demand career and technical education programs such as healthcare and biotechnology, construction trades, manufacturing, global logistics, and hospitality.
The state’s county vocational-technical school districts also applied for the CTE Bond Act funding to support projects that directly respond to the needs of area employers. For example, the Gloucester County Institute of Technology is establishing an advanced manufacturing and applied science building at Rowan College of South Jersey in response to the increased demand within the region’s manufacturing industry.
With technology even more embedded in almost all aspects of daily life, user experience/user interface design is another fast-growing field, Burke notes. In response to this industry demand, Bergen County Technical Schools launched an interactive design program that combines fields such as graphic design, animation, computer programming, marketing and psychology. Meanwhile, when Atlantic County identified aviation as a key industry to help diversify its economic base, the Atlantic County Institute of Technology launched a program in partnership with Atlantic Cape Community College based on a curriculum developed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Last fall, Ocean County Vocational Technical School created a two-year heavy equipment operator program to meet industry demand – the second program of its kind in the state. And in response to the heightened call for individuals trained in cybersecurity during the pandemic, both Morris County Vocational School District and Bergen County Technical Schools developed cybersecurity programs with the guidance and help of industry partners.
“More and more New Jerseyans are feeling the need to earn post-secondary credentials if they want to have an opportunity for a family-sustaining career – and all while companies are having to think about how they can access well-trained, talented workers and upskill their current employees,” Fichtner says. “We’ve reached a point where we all have to become lifelong learners.”
But it’s not just technological skills that state employers are seeking. Burke explains that in addition to industry knowledge, skills such as communication, teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving have become increasingly important, which is why they are also being integrated and reinforced in career and technical education programs. “The pandemic has driven advances in technology across all areas, so our county vocational-technical schools have incorporated these skills into career programs from advanced manufacturing to agriculture as employers across the board are looking for a combination of technical and general career readiness skills,” Burke says.
Recent legislation has committed $3 million from the supplemental workforce fund for basic skills to the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development to fund its workplace literacy and basic skills training program as delivered by the state’s 18 community colleges. Launched in 2007, the program is an innovative statewide partnership between New Jersey’s community colleges and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA). To date more than 11,000 employers have sent more than 188,000 employees to be trained at New Jersey’s community colleges.
“Community colleges and the NJBIA are seizing this moment to collaborate because we’ve recognized that the economy is changing – and we need to learn how to work together differently because we know a skilled workforce is crucial to the state’s economic vitality,” Fichtner explains. “We’re so excited that our 18 community colleges have committed to helping people get the credentials they need and rethinking how we’re preparing residents to succeed in this changing economy by aligning with the needs of industry.”
Though Sullender notes that New Jersey is currently ranked among the top three states in terms of unemployment rate, the latest data shows an increase of open jobs with wages that are continuing to grow as a result of competition and a tighter labor market.
“The good news is that if you’re looking for work, there’s probably something out there for you – and it’s probably paying more than it was a year ago,” Sullender concludes. “However, we encourage anyone regardless of job history or educational background to always keep an eye and ear on developments within their industry so they can position themselves strategically to learn those skills as soon as possible.”
The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) recently announced a total of $6.5 million in available grant funding under the Growing Apprenticeship in Nontraditional Sectors (GAINS) and Pre-Apprenticeship in Career Education (PACE) programs.
The GAINS grant promotes expansion of United States Department of Labor (USDOL) approved Registered Apprenticeship programs to support better-paying careers and advanced credential attainment. The program seeks to develop new and existing apprenticeship programs and create Registered Apprenticeship programs in high-growth industries, with this round of funding targeting growth in a range of sectors including Information Technology/Cyber Security, Bio Pharma/Life Sciences, Renewable Energy, Public Service, and more. Currently, more than half of GAINS apprentices are in the healthcare sector.
The PACE grant supports pre-apprenticeship programs that provide education and training to prepare participants for either placement into a Registered Apprenticeship program, into a post-secondary college or occupation-specific career training program, or into the workforce. In partnership with a Registered Apprenticeship program sponsor, these programs expand career pathways with industry-based training and classroom instruction, leading to better-paying positions and advanced credentials.
PACE programs provide tools such as job readiness, essential skills, and occupation-specific training. In addition, PACE funding can be used to offer stipends to participants to offset costs of supportive services, such as childcare and transportation, and can also be used to support the attainment of a high school equivalency diploma or GED. The PACE program was developed primarily to help alleviate economic barriers that hinder upskilling, and to promote equality of opportunity, upward mobility, and economic fairness.
In November, NJDOL announced that the department distributed $9,064,854 in Fiscal Year 2021 through four grants that support the growth of Registered Apprenticeship programs across the state, which also includes the New Jersey Pathways Leading Apprentices to a College Education (NJ PLACE 2.0) and Youth Transitions to Work (YTTW) grant programs.
Since January 2018, New Jersey has created 549 new Registered Apprenticeship programs – a 90% increase – and on-boarded 8,785 new apprentices. The state currently has 8,961 active apprentices in 1,160 programs.
To access more business news, visit NJB News Now.