Melissa Hartpence

The Rising Demand for Workforce Development

As many of the state’s industries continue to thrive, the need for skilled employees may be greater than ever before.

Amid discussion of raising the minimum wage and a shift in the perception that everyone needs to pursue a four-year degree to earn a decent living, the demand for workforce training and development continues to be a crucial issue for businesses in the Garden State. Many of the state’s businesses in a variety of industries are struggling with the fact that there’s a discrepancy between the skills workers have and the skills that employers actually need. 

“New Jersey has a significant labor mismatch. Businesses need middle-skilled workers – those with an advanced skill set typically achieved through post-secondary education or training, but not necessarily a four-year degree,” explains Michael Wallace, director of employment and labor policy and federal affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA). “This gap is holding back some key sectors of the economy, most notably manufacturing.”

To that end, NJBIA established a Postsecondary Education Task Force whose mission is to keep millennials in New Jersey and match education programs to private sector jobs. The task force also aims to build career readiness standards into K-16 educational curriculum and better promote the value of New Jersey’s higher education institutions.

“We have more than 40,000 vacant jobs for these mid-level skills that pay well and would afford employees the opportunity to live, work and play here in the state of New Jersey, but we took our eyes off that ball a long time ago when it was suggested that the only pathway to success was a traditional college education towards a bachelor’s degree and beyond,” asserts NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka. “Now we have all of these good jobs but employees who lack the technical skills to fill them.”

The task force released a white paper this January that offers recommendations to stem millennial outmigration – the state currently has the highest millennial outmigration in the country, with a total net loss of 183,591 millennials from 2007 to 2016 – as the Murphy-Oliver administration and Legislature consider goals and policy directions for the future of New Jersey’s workforce.

“Millenials are our future workforce … and when you consider that the cost of K-12 education in the state of New Jersey is $20,000 per pupil per year, allowing that population to migrate out of the state is not a good investment in the future of our workforce,” Siekerka says.

Jill Schiff, executive director of operations for the Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey, notes that industries like construction are desperately in need of enhanced workforce development opportunities, particularly for millenials. “Construction firm owners need to prepare the next generation to assume responsibility for their businesses,” she says. “Baby boomer craftworkers are retiring in great numbers, and we need to be sure their skills and knowledge base are passed down.”

The need becomes increasingly critical as the state’s infrastructure continues to age, Schiff notes, while the demand continues to grow for warehouses, data centers, manufacturing plants, hospitals and healthcare facilities, schools and multi-family housing. “The work needs to be done, and we need the skilled labor force to do it,” she says.

John Ballantyne, executive secretary-treasurer, Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters (NRCC), agrees with Shiff, adding, “As baby boomers retire from the construction industry, we need new workers in their 20s to 30s who are interested in a great career in carpentry. Currently, NRCC is recruiting in high schools and vo-techs and working with local, social and career organizations to identify young adults who are interested in starting a career.”

This spring, NRCC will open a new state-of-the-art 100,000-square-foot training facility in Edison, that will provide thousands of apprentice carpenters in the state with cutting-edge classroom curriculum and technology. “This five-year education is provided to individuals at no cost and is coupled with in-the-field training. It’s a great choice for millennials who want a career with good pay, health and retirement benefits and no college debt whatsoever,” Ballantyne says.

The good news is that the state’s administration, Legislature, and institutions of higher education are actively collaborating to address these problems. For example, NJBIA partnered with the New Jersey Community College Consortium (NJCCC) for Workforce and Economic Development and the New Jersey Department of Labor to establish a basic skills workforce training program. Since its inception in 2007, more than 134,000 employees from more than 8,500 private-sector companies have received training, and last year, the program served 1,068 businesses – 72 percent of which were small businesses.

“We teach everything from Microsoft Office, to business communications, to Spanish for the workplace, and these are the kinds of subjects that are helping to improve productivity for the state’s businesses,” explains Sivaraman Anbarasan, executive director of the NJCCC Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development. The training programs are all offered at the state’s 19 community colleges. “Our mission is to help people see that community colleges are no longer just preparing students for degrees, but helping people gain industry skills and find jobs,” Anbarasan says.

The organization partners directly with employers to learn the skills that are needed within the industry and develop grant-funded training programs that address their specific needs. “Employers tell us what they need, help us screen candidates, and provide access to their facilities so that trainees can earn hands-on experience,” he adds. “Employers appreciate the fact that they don’t have to hire someone off the street and train them; we’re able to give them trained candidates who are already comfortable working in their environment and who can grow with their company.”

NJBIA has also worked with the Legislature to establish a Manufacturing Caucus: a bicameral, bipartisan caucus of 14 legislators whose mission is to improve the economic competiveness of the state and re-establish New Jersey as a leader in innovation and job creation.

“Successful workforce development and apprenticeship training programs require engagement and cooperation between businesses, educational institutions, and state and local government,” Wallace asserts. “We’re working to engage all of these stakeholders in a new way … so that we’re able to map out a strategy for addressing both the short- and long-term workforce needs of our state to lead us into the next decade and beyond.”

Unions like ELEC Local 825 are also responding to the state’s needs for both trained workers and improved infrastructure with its own training center and initiatives such as training programs targeted towards the paving industry. “Thanks to the amount of paving work that needs to be done in response to the renewal of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, we’re prepping employees to go to work on the roads,” explains Greg Lalevee, ELEC chairman.

The organization has taken advantage of state training grants and forged a partnership with facilities such as Six Flags Great Adventure to provide hands-on training opportunities. “Our students are working with real asphalt and under real conditions to pave sections of the Six Flags parking lot,” he says. “These mutual initiatives allow businesses to benefit from our efforts while we effectively train employees to tackle the jobs that need to be done in our state.”

IBEW Local 102 also boasts its own 16,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art training center, and currently has 279 apprentices within its apprenticeship program. “There are limits to what we can provide at our facility, so we continually seek out educational venues to fill the gaps for us,” explains Bernie Corrigan, organizer and referral training director for IBEW Local 102. The organization relies on partners within the business community to support training in areas such as welding, CDLs, and aerial work platform training, and they’ve also teamed up with institutions of higher education like Rowan University to provide a pathway to a bachelor’s degree in construction management.

“Every industry encounters change … the key to success is having a training program committed to evolving with it,” he adds. “One of the biggest values we provide our contractors is consistency – each and every electrician that graduates our training program has the same baseline skills that ultimately leads to better productivity.”

The state’s institutions of higher education are also doing their part to create workforce development and apprenticeship training programs to help employees acquire the skills that today’s businesses need. Rowan University established the Rowan Work and Learn Consortium, an initiative that creates degree programs that were developed in conjunction with workforce and industry leaders.

“Our goal is to develop academic programs that are needed by businesses, non-profit organizations, and industry. Work and Learn allows any individual to acquire industry-valued credentials while pursuing a degree,” explains Dr. Lorraine C. Ricchezza, assistant vice president of Rowan global academic affairs.

Some colleges and universities are being awarded grants to help cultivate workforce development training programs. Earlier this year, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD) awarded a $3-million grant that will oversee 10 Talent Networks to ensure that current and future New Jersey workers are equipped with the skills employers identify as critical to the success of the state’s key industries.

Rowan University received $275,000 for a construction/utilities Talent Network for Southern New Jersey. “Our focus is to bring in business and industry, non-profit organizations, and workforce development boards to ask the important questions that higher education needs to be asking: What kinds of programs, credentials or skills are most needed for your business or industry sector right now?” Ricchezza explains.

Through its Talent Network, the university has partnered with companies such as Lockheed Martin to build programs around the specific needs of local employers as well as offer apprenticeship programs to allow students to earn college credits while receiving hands-on training in trades like carpentry. “Businesses tell us what needs to happen for their employees to improve upon or enhance their current skills as well as to advance into managerial or leadership roles,” she adds. “We’re seeing a much more transparent and mutually beneficial relationship between higher education and businesses, industry and non-profit organizations.”

Union County College (UCC) has also teamed up with organizations including the NJCCC for Economic and Workforce Development to offer classes in topics such as basic computer skills, and the college has also partnered with the LWD Talent Networks and Talent Development Centers at Rowan College at Burlington County, New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP), and Camden County College to bring training in industry-recognized credentials to both incumbent workers and unemployed candidates.

“We’re receiving requests from employers for training-valued employees for career paths in management and supervision. Training programs include supervisory skills, leadership, team building, conflict resolution, and problem solving,” explains Dr. Margaret M. McMenamin, president of Union County College. “Employers care about the retention of their employees, and are seeking training opportunities as a way to invest in their development and improve retention.”

Like many of the state’s institutions of higher education, UCC is also currently working to develop strong apprenticeship programs. “Apprenticeships are excellent pathways for students from college to the workplace, and provide a means for employers to create a pool of strong workers to move into positions of greater responsibility,” McMenamin says. However, many colleges and universities must overcome the challenge of balancing on-the-job training and mentoring with having enough time set aside for classroom learning. “Apprenticeships require resources on the part of the employer, and often the government grants that provide funding for apprenticeships have extensive reporting requirements that deter businesses from taking on the burden,” she explains.

Lincoln Tech is also partnering directly with businesses to develop and routinely update its workforce development programs. “Our focus is always to meet industry needs to ensure that students can find jobs, so we bring in employers to comment on the quality of our students and curriculum as well as to tell us which skills are no longer as important because of changes in technology, or which equipment we need to incorporate into our classrooms,” explains Scott M. Shaw, CEO and president of Lincoln Tech. “We know that businesses need students with practical skills and not just a textbook knowledge of what’s going on in their industry.”

The state’s vocational schools also continue to forge partnerships with businesses to ensure that students are earning the skills that employers need, such as through industry advisory committees. Companies like FedEx have teamed up with some of the state’s technical institutes to develop global logistics programs, while healthcare systems like Virtua and Hackensack Meridian are partners for students pursuing careers in the healthcare industry. The state’s county and vocational schools are also working closely with NJBIA, NJMEP and the state’s manufacturing companies to develop new programs in manufacturing and support the industry’s continued growth in the state.

“Educators have no way of knowing how the industry is starting to change, what the key skills are, and which skills are no longer needed unless they actively partner with employers to tell them,” asserts Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools (NJCCVTS).

NJCCVTS has also teamed up with NJBIA to pass legislation to support partnership grants, which has enabled the creation of 17 new career and technical education programs that – over the course of four years – will serve more than 1,000 students in a range of programs including manufacturing, STEM, computer science, environmental science and sustainability, aviation and biotech. In conjunction with NJBIA, the organization also launched an employer coalition for technical education in 2014, and is preparing to reactivate the coalition to support the continued growth of career and technical education in New Jersey.

“There’s been broad recognition and agreement that New Jersey needs to expand its system of vocational schools to add more programs to respond to employer demand and serve more students in these programs,” Savage concludes. “And there has definitely been a recognition of the value of career-focused training programs that can launch a career with less than a four-year degree. These middle-skill jobs require a high level of technical training, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree … and we’re all working together to focus on filling those jobs.”

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