Sweeney wants $750M bond issue to fund expansion of vocational education

John Kennedy said he was thrilled that more than 150 manufacturers attended the first session of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program’s second annual State of the State on Wednesday at the Trenton War Memorial.

“But there are nearly 11,000 manufacturers in the state,” Kennedy, CEO of NJMEP, said.

“I, too, own a manufacturing company and could give myself every excuse to not be involved. But we cannot assume that our legislators and our government know everything about what we do and vice versa. If we do not get involved, we do not get to speak to the people who make decisions on our behalf.”

Such as Senator Bob Gordon, who, although currently serving as the New Jersey Manufacturing Caucus Chair, made his last public appearance as a state senator on Wednesday before taking a position as the next commissioner of the Board of Public Utilities.

“Soon they’ll be calling me Commissioner Gordon,” he said. “We have heard your concerns about the impact of high energy costs on manufacturing.

“That is something I may actually now have an opportunity to work on with all of you as I begin this new chapter.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who helped to create the manufacturing caucus, spoke at length about sponsoring a $750 million bond issue to fund the expansion of vocational and technical education facilities, as well as manufacturing programs and safety protocols within high schools and county colleges.

“We hear from you that 40,000 jobs go unfilled each year because we simply haven’t trained enough people for those jobs,” he said. “Then we hear that there are 15,000 kids each year who can’t get into vocational schools because we have made them institutes of technology.

“Through Senator Gordon’s work and our bipartisan caucus, we have started recognizing where we are failing.”

Sweeney said the work could begin by expanding ‘stackable credits’ outside of the Gloucester County Institute of Technology and Rowan University.

“The idea is that if you need a certificate to do a certain job, you can get it and go to work,” Sweeney said. “If you only need so much education to make a living, get it, go to work, and if something changes and you need to learn more, go back. You can work your way through vocational school, county college and a university this way by getting the education that you need when you need it.

“No one is against this idea in Trenton. The challenge for me now is to expand this idea beyond Gloucester County.”

Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said time is of the essence.

“New Jersey is the number one out-migrator of millennials between 18 and 34 years old in the nation,” she said. “These are the students we have taken the time to educate using the highest property taxes in the nation for one of the best deliveries of kindergarten through twelfth grade education, and they are leaving. That is not a very good return on investment.”

Siekerka said her organization has and will continue to serve as a facilitator between New Jersey businesses, academia, policy makers, students and nonprofits to identify skills gaps and put forth recommendations on how to solve them.

“We’ve also put together a task force — involving many of you in the room as well as businesses, K through 12 schools, career and technical educators, community colleges, public and private four-year secondary educators, nonprofits, the Department of Labor, the Secretary of Higher Education, and the Department of Education — to discuss with millennials how to make post-secondary education in New Jersey attractive and affordable so graduating high school seniors don’t leave and how to be honest about traditional career pathways.”

The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program will host a similar event on Friday at the County College of Morris in Randolph, where more than 250 manufacturers are expected to attend.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development began working with the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program this year on Advanced Manufacturing and Transportation, Logistics and Distribution talent networks.

Torsten Schimanski, director of professional education and training for the New Jersey Talent Networks and NJMEP, said it’s a step in the right direction.

“The talent networks will help us to identify the causes of and close the skill gaps by giving us more opportunities to engage with business partners, manufacturers, educators, students and their parents, leading toward credits, credentials and employment,” he said. “We are going to be the feet on the ground.

“Become part of the talent network and you can help influence the outcome.”