John Kennedy said a statewide apprenticeship program was one of his first goals when he took the job as head of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program seven years ago.
Robert Asaro-Anglo, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, said Gov. Phil Murphy’s support for apprenticeship programs was one of the main reasons he joined the administration.
Last Friday, at NJMEP headquarters, the two were among a big group that celebrated the inaugural Apprenticeship Signing Day — an event where 10 companies and 22 apprenticeships held a ceremony to mark the first and second classes of a program that is being run by NJMEP with support from the state and a federal grant.
For Kennedy and Asaro-Angelo — both of whom started their work careers as apprentices — it was a dream come true.
“I get choked up when I talk about apprenticeships,” Asaro-Angelo told a crowd of approximately 100.
Afterward, he told ROI-NJ why the event — and the program — is so special to him.
“Workforce development and economic development are intrinsically tied,” he said.
And nowhere are they more so than in the manufacturing sector.
“We are so lucky to have a state where we’ve had four years of manufacturing growth,” he said. “Now, when employers come to us, a workforce development agency, looking for help, we can say: ‘We have an answer for you.’
“Here is a program that’s plug-and-play. We have a great partner with MEP. To be here today and see the different ages of people who have started their apprenticeship programs is unbelievably satisfying.”
Apprentices in the program work four days a week at their regular job and come to NJMEP on the fifth day for classroom instruction and training.
“Learning as we go along, that’s what we should do in life,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We need to learn new competencies and learn new life skills. This apprenticeship program embodies that and is a great example of what government can do when it works with the private sector.
“We’re not paying for all of this. Employers have skin in the game, too. In the end, our goal is that there shouldn’t be any funding from us — and that employers will realize what a great investment this is.”
Kennedy knows the impact an apprenticeship program can have. That’s why it was so important.
His goal is to show people this is a pathway to the middle class.
“Going to college at age 18 is great for some kids, but not great for others,” he said. “We don’t recognize the fact that there are different pathways. And it’s our own fault.
“What happens is, my generation of parents said, ‘You have to go to college.’ And, the thing is, 60 percent do not graduate from college. So, they are doing something and probably very productive. Let’s make sure they are as productive as they can be.”
The event was a way to promote the path.
Kennedy loves watching high school athletes have a signing day when they select which college they will attend. He wanted to bring the same significance to this career path.
“We’re going to try to make June 7 New Jersey Signing Day and see if we can keep it rolling,” he said.
Asaro-Angelo pledged to be right there with him.
The concept, he said, is scalable, too. He liked to see a signing day every month, using it to incorporate apprenticeships in many sectors.
“The possibilities are limitless,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We know the model works. We need to show the impact this investment can have for employees who are so desperate for workers right now.
“The one thing that is different with manufacturing is that there is a great third-party implementor in MEP. My job is to figure out what can we do as a state to help grow and foster and create similar third-party entities for other sectors as well.
“My goal is to have this not just in manufacturing, but in food science and transportation and logistics, health care, hospitality, retail and IT.
“That’s something I’m looking forward to solving in years 2 and 3 and 4 of the Murphy administration.”