Career-Tech Education Finally Graduates

Education and workforce development debate shifts from “college for all” to “skills beyond high school for all.”

State businesses and career-focused technical students are celebrating the myriad prospects unleashed by new legislation that plugs a widening, disturbing gap between the skills New Jersey businesses require and the educational programs that provide them. 

For years, the state’s emerging recession has demanded better alignment of public education with employers’ needs: Businesses sought unsuccessfully for workers with the academic, career readiness and technical skills required to fill jobs openings, while more than 17,000 technical school applicants were turned away in a single year due to inadequate training capacity.

Finally, in December 2014, a five-bill package addressing the skills gap was signed by Governor Chris Christie. The new legislation increases the number and types of career-tech education (CTE) curriculums available; expands capacity for interested students; provides businesses with a wider pipeline of qualified workers to fill skilled job openings; and unleashes a new class of economic growth opportunities.

The new CTE laws help shift the state’s education and workforce development debate from “college for all” to “skills beyond high school for all.” They underscore that demand for middle-skill technical workers in healthcare, logistics, manufacturing and public safety, for example, may be met with an associate’s degree, license or industry certification – not necessarily a four-year degree. (See sidebar on page 46 for a brief description of each of the five new laws.)

“By giving our children a firm educational foundation and the hands-on experience they need to be competitive, New Jersey’s CTE programs prepare our students to pursue their career goals as the highly skilled workforce our 21st-century employers need,” Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno tells New Jersey Business.  “Today’s students have more opportunities than ever thanks to dynamic and innovative partnerships with higher education and leading industry representatives. Our efforts over the past year have emphasized career readiness and strengthened these collaborative efforts, which provide students with invaluable knowledge and the inspiration that will help them succeed in whatever path they choose.”

The ‘A-ha’ Moment 

In addition to the skills gap, CTE discussions in New Jersey were fueled by national studies of student preparedness for current and future careers. For example, according to the Brookings Institute, 50 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) do not require a bachelor’s degree. In addition, by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, but almost half of those jobs will not require a four-year degree, according to a study by Georgetown University.

A report from Harvard Graduate School of Education that examined workforce needs and college outcomes, stated that our nation’s system for preparing young people for a productive future is “badly broken.” The study concluded that a narrowly defined “college for all” goal – one that does not include a much stronger focus on career-oriented programs – seems “doomed to fail.”

In response to these and similar findings, including feedback from New Jersey employers across all sizes and industries, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) conducted its own research of technical curriculums and workplace needs. The study accentuated the growing skills gap and desperate need to close it. Of the state business leaders responding to the NJBIA survey:

75 percent said a skills gap made it difficult to maintain production levels to meet customer demands.

51 percent said a shortage of workers with the necessary skills led to slower delivery of products to market.

The majority said entry-level employees had inadequate “employability” skills, including time management, communications and critical thinking abilities.

Conferring with the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Technical Schools (NJCCVTS), NJBIA found that while interest in CTE programs has grown, capacity at the state’s 21 county technical school districts had maxed out, further widening the gap between student preparedness and the business community’s need for skilled workers.

In fact, the latest figures (2013) highlight New Jersey’s unmet demand for a career-tech education:

  • Applications: 28,160
  • Enrolled: 11,447
  • Unmet Demand: 16,713.

“This was the ‘a-ha’ moment that incited a direct response to the state’s skills shortage,” says Andrew Musick, director of policy and research for the NJBIA. Together with the NJCCVTS, Musick’s team created the New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education, a partnership of nearly 200 state business, education, labor and government leaders committed to meeting the skilled labor challenges of today’s global economy.

The coalition’s goals are to:

  • Expand career opportunities
  • Promote technical education
  • Shrink the skills gap

Ensure Future Economic Prosperity in New Jersey

To fulfill these objectives, the coalition and other associations and state agencies began meeting with various state legislators. Many recognized the urgent need for CTE reform. For example, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who came from the construction, plumbing and building inspection trades, was a leading co-sponsor of the legislative package.

“The New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education applauds Governor Christie, Assembly Speaker Prieto and Senate President Sweeney, among others, for their support of career and technical education in New Jersey,” Musick asserts. “These measures will help ensure that students have the skills they need to launch a successful career, and that employers have a continuing pipeline of workers well-prepared to fill skilled job openings in the 21st century.”

Identifying and Addressing Emerging Demands 

A critical link to producing this ongoing pipeline of qualified employees “is a formal, local advisory committee for every CTE program,” reports Judy Savage, executive director of the NJCCVTS. “Each committee is comprised of local business leaders who work closely with county technical schools to align programs with industry needs and help develop new programs that address emerging demands.

Academic and technical knowledge is key, but New Jersey employers also are demanding a workforce with solid “employability skills” such as time management, communication and critical thinking. “CTE programs stress the importance of reliability, teamwork, communication and problem-solving,” Savage notes, “along with other proficiencies that are important when preparing students for the work world, as well as college.”

Savage says the five new laws have been “fantastic” in terms of increasing awareness of what CTE programs can do in New Jersey: “Employers continue to contact us about the bill package, their own specific needs for career-tech workers, and ways they can engage with their counties’ technical schools to help shape the programs that create the skilled workforce so desperately needed.”

The package signed by Governor Christie also included two bills that were vetoed due to budget constraints. One called for more state aid to tech schools and the other to reinstate funding for adult education programs. Regardless of the veto, the new legislation “is very major” and “takes a good step towards expanding access to CTE,” Savage adds. “The laws increase the state’s focus on career readiness as a goal of the education system, and place greater emphasis on the important connection between CTE and New Jersey’s business community.”

A History of Industry Support 

CTE’s graduation in December 2014 expands program capacity across high schools, colleges and industry settings, while the state has more than a decade of providing official statewide education and training services to its businesses. The New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development was founded in 2004 by New Jersey’s community colleges, which were designated a year earlier by Executive Order as the preferred provider of training and for workforce development and business attraction programs. Through the Workforce Consortium, businesses and organizations have one-point access to the colleges’ more than 1,700 programs, helping companies to access, develop and receive customized – as well as onsite – workforce education and training for employees.

Sivaraman Anbarasan is executive director and CEO of the Workforce Consortium. He contends that New Jersey’s skills gap “is the most pressing issue the business community is facing.” This issue also affects the state’s economic development needs as more businesses – many with technical openings they can’t fill – continue to threaten to leave the state because of high taxes and regulations.

In New Jersey’s private industry sector, roughly 35,500 jobs were created from November 2013 to November 2014, primarily in the transportation, utilities, professional and business services, and education and health services, “clearly indicating a great need for skilled employees,” Anbarasan says. Even with job losses in other private industries, such as construction and leisure/hospitality, the overall private sector change was plus-12,700 for the one-year period.

The most important impact of the new legislation to New Jersey’s business community, both private and public, “is recognition by our state leaders that not every worker needs to have a bachelor’s degree to be successful,” Anbarasan states. “Our community colleges already provide the much needed technical training, certifications and degrees to help people get good jobs that provide family-sustaining wages. Through this legislation, CTE will become more of an option even at the secondary school level. The bills will go a long way in ensuring students get the training they need to be career ready, and that businesses better fill their technical job openings.”

Bergen County’s Applied Technology High School

Bergen County’s Applied Technology High School (ATHS), which opens its doors September 2015, is a solid example of how CTE programs and capacity can expand across the state. ATHS is a joint venture between Bergen County Technical Schools and Bergen County Community College, and is geared toward career-focused students seeking an associate’s degree.

ATHS programs are centered on “smart machines.” Through a blend of academic high school curriculum, college classes and hands-on technical training, “students learn to apply math, science and technology to hands-on projects in the fields of automation, electronics and advanced manufacturing,” explains Howard Lerner, superintendent of BCTS and president of the NJCCVTS. “Students will learn essential skills needed to pursue a career in a wide variety of engineering technology areas while obtaining college credits that will allow them to earn advanced standing in several technical associate’s degree programs at the college.”

He adds, “People with degrees in engineering technology fill critical workforce needs installing, maintaining and supporting the increase of automated manufacturing systems that are projected to return much of the production that has been outsourced over the past decade back into factories here in the US.”

Union County’s Largest  Provider of Workforce Development Training

Union County College (UCC) delivers skills training to more than 6,000 students per year and is the largest provider of workforce development training in its county. UCC’s Industry-Business Institute is a key partner with the Workforce Consortium: In 2014, the school delivered more than 60 training programs to 760 employees representing over 200 Union County employers.

UCC is committed to the “employability skills” training that New Jersey businesses demand. Recently, the Industry-Business Institute added six such programs: Team Building, Time Management, Problem Solving, Supervisory Skills, Management Skills, and Personal Management and Business Professionalism. The new series “provides the professional advancement skills essential at all levels within an organization, whatever size,” states Lisa Raudelunas Hiscano, UCC’s director of continuing and professional education.

UCC also partners with Union County Vocational Technical Schools to implement educational, skills and occupational training programs, efforts that can expand thanks to the new five-bill legislation.

Quick Glance at the Five New CTE Laws

Legislation helps schools meet business employment needs.

The five bills signed by Governor Christie in December 2014 increase awareness of CTE programs and expand their capacity, thereby closing the widening gap between the skills New Jersey businesses require and the educational programs that provide them. Specifically, the five new laws will:

    1. Require the New Jersey School Report Card to include indicators of student career readiness. School performance reports will expand beyond a focus on “college readiness” measures to include indicators of “college and career readiness.”
    2. Require that preparation programs for teachers and school counselors include coursework that supports improved student career readiness. New teachers and counselors must now complete programming in areas such as employability skills, career awareness and understanding CTE, so that career awareness becomes part of their professional preparation.
    3. Establish a four-year, state-funded County Vocational School District Partnership Grant Program to help county vocational school districts partner with urban and other school districts, county colleges, and other entities to use existing facilities to give more high school students access to CTE opportunities. A key piece of the bill package, this program directly expands CTE capacity by leveraging the availability of existing, yet underutilized, facility space across the state.
    4. Allow school districts and require public colleges to enter into dual enrollment agreements to provide college-level instruction to high school students through courses offered on a high school or college campus. This act strengthens local secondary and post-secondary relationships; increases the availability of college-level instruction for high schoolers; and provides students with more opportunities to earn college-level credits while still in high school, thereby reducing the time and cost of obtaining a subsequent degree.
    5. Clarify that school districts may provide CTE programs in industry settings. This law encourages schools and employers to collaborate on the development of CTE programs in an actual workplace, and exempts the off-site setting from specific school standards. The satellite location will not require approval as a temporary facility nor impact the long range facilities plan of the school district – all making CTE program expansion faster and easier.


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