Apprenticeship celebration welcomed by eager employers

Jalil Fenney was proud that he had risen to the role of team leader at Exothermic Molding in Kenilworth in less than a year. Prouder still that his group had scored higher than the national average on a recent exam.

Most importantly, he was glad he was successfully re-entering the workforce after what he called “a big mistake,” led him to being briefly incarcerated.

As he spoke to a group of approximately 100 at the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program’s inaugural Apprenticeship Signing Day last Friday, he did so as a symbol of what the program can be: A path to a career.

“When I went to Exothermic Moldlng, I didn’t know anything about molding, I just wanted a job,” he said.

Fenney said he jumped at the chance to join one of two apprenticeship programs that are being run by NJMEP.

“My company continues to push me to become better,” he said.

Fenney spoke 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.

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.

There is a one-year program for technical sales (which required 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 156 classroom hours) and an 18-month program for industrial manufacturing production technicians (which requires 2,736 hours of on-the-job training and 264 hours of related technician instruction).

Apprentices must be employed by a company for 30 days before they are able to start in a program.

John Kennedy, the head of NJMEP, said the programs provide a path to careers that many still do not realize are available.

“I don’t think we do a good enough job as a state to show people that there are a number of pathways they can take,” he said. “College is not for everyone. And that’s OK.”

Patty Moran, the director of apprenticeships at NJMEP, said it has started two apprenticeship cohorts, with a third coming in July.

She intends to begin new groups every few months.

“The app program is extremely important to building the economy of New Jersey, closing the skills gap for manufacturers and moving workers on to various career options and career opportunities and improving their life overall,” she said.

Moran pointed out how the program draws both men and women of all ages and backgrounds, including veterans.

Annette Oswald, director of human resources at one of the participating companies, Komline-Sanderson in Peapack, is ready to take full advantage.

“We have long waited for something like this to happen,” she said. “We hire very highly skilled, trained technical people — and we can’t find them.

“Finding skilled labor is really difficult. We have taken it upon ourselves to hire people who might not necessarily have the skills that we need, so what we try to do is train them and mentor them. So, this was truly a godsend.”

The program, Oswald said, does more than just train the next generation of employees.

“This enhances the relationship with the employee,” she said. “It gives them a good feeling about themselves, it fosters camaraderie — my company cares about me, they want me to do well — and, if I do well, I’m going to be successful and they are going to be successful.

“Employer engagement is the No. 1 rule of apprenticeship. It’s very important that the employer be engaged with the apprentice.”

Robert Asaro-Angelo, the state’s commissioner of labor & workforce development, said the time is right for the program.

“For a very long time, especially during the recession, everyone talked about jobs — getting a job, we need more jobs,” he said. “Now, we’re at a point where we are almost at full employment. So, we have employers who can’t find people to fill the job. We have workers who are looking to get more than a job. In my mind, an apprenticeship is a perfect mix of both.

“This give employers a chance to show their employee that they care about them and that they are ready to invest, not just in them as a worker in their factory or their facility on that day or this quarter — they are making an investment in their lives, in their family’s lives.”

Asaro-Angelo said he hopes the program will be able to expand to our sectors.

“My goal is to have this not just in manufacturing, but in food science and transportation and logistics, health care, hospitality, retail and IT,” he said.

He’s not the only one.

Melissa Sevola, a structured learning coordinator at the Morris County Tech, came to the event to see if it would be a pathway for some of the students at her school.

She definitely thinks it is.

“I think one of the hardest things is to get parents to realize that not everyone has to go to college, that this is an excellent option of both being a good-paying job and providing a career path,” she said. “That’s where we come in as a vocational school.

“Kids are coming to us with some ideas of what they want to explore. Our job is to show them these opportunities.”

Sevola said this program can add to what her school already offers.

“We have an excellent trades program with carpentry and welding, but this could be something in food,” she said. “We have a great culinary program; maybe it’s something where the kids have explored the culinary academy and say they don’t want to be in the kitchen, but they want to be in the sector. This could be a career path for them.”

Read more from ROI-NJ: