Educators confident manufacturing sector has right programs to train much-needed next generation of workers (it just needs trainees)

Donald Sebastian said that — for the first time in a long time — he is optimistic about the future of manufacturing in New Jersey.

Sebastian, CEO of New Jersey Innovation Institute on the campus of New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, was speaking during the second session of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program’s State of the State last Friday at the County College of Morris in Randolph.

File photo
Donald Sebastian of the New Jersey Innovation Institute.

And he told the crowd of more than 600 manufacturing and STEM firms and more than 100 legislators, government departments and educators that he feels the training programs that have been in place the past few years are now poised to take off.

“We’ve been training, but those certifications have not typically been counting toward a degree and vice versa,” he said. “Finding a way to harmonize our technical training with the education system has been a fundamental challenge for us to overcome.”

However, with renewed commitment from the highest levels of government, education and business, Sebastian said the state has begun to tackle the educational and workforce issues that have been plaguing New Jersey’s manufacturing sector for decades.

NJMEP, the Cedar Knolls nonprofit responsible for assisting New Jersey manufacturing companies in becoming more competitive and profitable, polled the attendees at Friday’s event.

Not surprisingly, workforce development was still a top issue for New Jersey manufacturers, with thousands of jobs, such as machinists and engineers, still going unfulfilled.

Sebastian said new programs are changing that.

“The concept that is permeating out there now is one of stackable credentials,” he said. “It is the idea that, when you get in an elevator, you can step out and do your job, and, when you need to move up, you can get back on the elevator to learn more.”

With the average annual manufacturing industry compensation totaling $92,046, numerous New Jersey schools have been dedicating their resources to not only solving the workforce issues of the sector but also making changes to the curriculum to better incorporate skills for advanced manufacturing, Sebastian said.

Stephen Mercadante, an educator of pre-engineering and manufacturing at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools, with campuses in East Brunswick, Edison, Perth Amboy, Piscataway and Woodbridge, said the kids graduating from their high schools are all currently exploiting various career pathways, including biomedicine.

“We have over 30 workstations that include computer numeric control machines and robotic and electrical systems, with over 10 different software programs that have both graphical and machine-coding components,” Mercadante said.

Students learn through applied learning and hands-on troubleshooting and are even eligible for certification through both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Lean Six Sigma Institute, he added.

“The beauty is that we give kids the skills to pursue multiple opportunities and careers in which they can make $50,000 right out of high school, with many companies also offering tuition reimbursement and 401(k) plans,” Mercadante said.

Michael Maresca, an educator with the Essex County Schools of Technology, including Newark Tech, West Caldwell Tech and the newly constructed Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark, said its students also learn the fundamentals of technology, including robotics, computer-aided design, 3-D printing, laser engraving and cutting, and bridge and tower design and testing.

“We give students a complete understanding of what will be required of them as an engineer or technician, whether they go into electrical, mechanical or civil engineering,” Maresca said.

John Dolan Jr., director of career and technical education at Essex County Schools of Technology, said it is the cooperative opportunities that really makes their high school programs stand out.

“Our students participate in structured learning experiences related to their unique fields of study, with companies such as Panasonic and Grewe Plastics,” he said.

Catherina Mirasol, director of continuing education and workforce development at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, said its apprenticeship program with Eastern Millwork, a technology company that specializes in wood engineering, has been very popular.

Our students are employed full-time to work four days a week at Eastern Millwork and then come here to campus one day per week to fulfill their educational requirements toward an advanced manufacturing degree with us,” she said.

The Holz Technik Academy provides students with a starting salary of $24,500 with full benefits, including 100 percent-paid health insurance, with incremental raises throughout the four-year program resulting in a guaranteed $70,000 salary upon graduation.

It also provides students with a pathway to a bachelor’s degree to further increase their salary, Mirasol said.

Sebastian said these sorts of programs and opportunities now available to high schoolers and college students should also be modified to be made available to middle schoolers, too.

“It is critical that we continue to figure out how to embed a passion for making things at the earliest stages of education,” Sebastian said.

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