Why we need to support CTE, community colleges on Election Day

The times they are a-changin’. Bob Dylan first sang that to us back in 1964, but what he did not tell us was that the change was to be omnipresent in our lives.

I say this because, over the last several years, I have spent a great deal of my time here at the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program discussing, developing and implementing programs that focus on “career pathways” and not simply “career choices.” Yes, there is a difference, and we as professionals, business owners, educators and parents need to be more aware of this reality.

The main problem that appears is that, somewhere over the past 25 years, we decided that only a college degree provided success, but in doing so (for many of the right reasons), we lost touch with reality. I say this because a recent Wall Street Journal article stated that “about 60% of Americans do not graduate from college.” While I am unsure of where the initial data came from, I would suspect that the number is reasonably accurate.

The fact is that we’ve all looked to our children and spoken of the values of a college education, and we were right … to a point. I say this because we looked to an 18-year-old and told them to choose their lifetime vocation. How did that work for most of us? Are you still working in that same job? If so, great, but so many of us have followed a pathway that included a few “side hikes” — and that’s OK.

We’ve all heard this many times, but I found out that a form of the saying “Experience is the best teacher” was actually attributed to Julius Caesar in 52 BC — and I thought quoting Dylan made me seem old.

Look, I’ve been in the engineering and manufacturing industry for over 35 years, and it remains a great place to start and maintain a career that is well-paying and incredibly satisfying. Yet, we struggle to fill over 25,000 open positions in New Jersey alone. This does not make much sense when we all keep hearing about the dearth of jobs for young adults. So, why? Well, it would seem to me that, when we push a direction that only includes a college degree — any college degree — we miss the mark for our young people under our care.

What do we need to understand?

We need to let our young adults know that education comes in many forms, and that learning is never done, and that ones’ career can include technical school, county colleges and universities. That formal learning does not begin at 18 and end at 22, with the rest a constant and consistent uphill trek. That is not the real world, and that’s OK.

What do we do now?

As a former business owner in New Jersey, I am not a big fan of government spending, because that does not come without some form of taxation. However, it does make sense at times, and there is a Bond Referendum on the ballot for our next election cycle, with voting on Nov. 6, that supports our career technical education, or CTE, schools and our county colleges in the areas for career, technical and vocational education.

This is an area that has long needed an influx of investment to assist in easing the logjam in applicants (about 17,000, I have heard) and to provide programs that are fully applicable in today’s ever-changing world. Here’s the catch — don’t just vote “Yes” because I am telling you to — but take a look at what is offered and how you or someone you know fits into these offerings. If 60 percent of us need diverse pathways from the traditional four-year college, then let’s make sure that the system is there to make it happen.

To end — I know the companies that NJMEP works with are in need — but it does not end with manufacturing alone … add in STEM, transportation & logistics, nursing/health care, retail/tourism and others. It’s good for us all to follow paths that lead somewhere of value. The New Jersey CTE schools and our county colleges are excellent examples of (now) nontraditional educations … let’s invest in what makes most sense.

John Kennedy is CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, based in Cedar Knolls.