Where business meets education: Key to vocational training is working with companies, officials say

Howard Lerner, superintendent of Bergen County Technical Schools, likes to be specific about what types of companies he is eager to work with to create programs for his students.

“We never turn away a small business, a medium business or a large business,” he joked.

Lerner was speaking at the recent ROI-NJ Thought Leadership Series, “Training the Next Generation: Vo-Tech’s Evolution as Your Workforce Solution.” And he wants to make sure all companies in all sectors are welcome.

“We need you as much or more than you may need us or our students,” he explained. “It’s all about networking. If you contact any superintendent or principal of a CTE program, I guarantee you will get a call back and you will have a conversation.”

(Editor’s Note: CTE stands for “career and technical education.” Vo-tech schools are often called CTE schools.)

Judy Savage, the executive director at the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said she is eager to facilitate these connections.

“The doors are open,” she said. “These are public schools that exist to prepare the workforce for that region. So, nobody should be shy about knocking on the door to say: ‘We’re looking to develop our future workforce. How can we work together?’”

Programs, Lerner said, can start small and grow.

“We have a plumbing program in our building program,” he said. “It now uses green technology. We started the apprenticeship program in adult education. We started with three adults, and now there’s over 30.”

The key, Lerner said, is working together to create the type of programs employers need.

Keith Muccilli
Judy Savage, the executive director at the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

“We partnered with Stryker on one of our new advanced manufacturing programs,” he said. “What businesses do to help us — besides being on advisory committees — is program development.”

Program development, Lerner said, does not start and stop with a curriculum.

“(Stryker) sends in people and establishes design challenges for our students,” he said. “(They will) develop a challenge and the kids will have four to six weeks to work on it. Stryker sends people in halfway through to look at the designs and then give suggestions. Afterward, students go there and present the outcome.

“What they get, besides the engineering and the creation and the working together, are the soft skills, the presentation skills, that are needed. From that experience, we created a ninth-grade class that has to do with all the soft skills that we believe kids need to be successful in a business.”

Lerner said he knows such soft skills will help students in the fast-changing work world — one the school tries to keep up with.

“We started what we call a futurist committee, where we look at the economy, we look at projected jobs,” he said. “We get people on the committee, teachers, business professionals, all constituent groups, to look five, 10 years in advance of where we think our economy is going and what types of new technologies will be needed, so we can start doing the research and create programs.

“We’re constantly looking 10 years in advance, so we’re always changing our educational programs.”

Savage said the schools need insights today, too — explaining the plumbing students need to know about low-flow toilets and the electrician students need to know about LED lighting.

“Our teachers might be five, 10, 15 or more years out of practicing in the industry, and need those employers to advise them on the latest technology,” she said. “And that applies to everything from construction trades to computer technology.”

Lerner said partnering is the key.

“Connection, networking, collaboration, communication,” he said. “That’s tremendously important for business and for our CTE schools. I can even explain to you how open we are to have as many businesses as possible to work with in Bergen County. I am connected to over 300 businesses through advisory committees, internships, mentorships, curriculum development, program development. We can’t survive without them.”

Savage agreed.

“It’s all about the partnership,” she said. “If we work together, and if employers are willing to invest their time and their energy in working with the schools, I think we can accomplish a lot of those things, including destigmatizing blue-collar work and keeping that curriculum moving forward. So, get to know us.”

Read more from ROI-NJ: