Career Classroom: After varied industry careers, vocational teachers enjoy move to classroom

John Branda worked as a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.  

Cameron DiCostanzo, who has a degree in nursing, was a clinical quality program manager at Regional Cancer Care Associates. 

Stephen Mercadante, an industrial engineer, spent 30 years in industry, training and implementing process improvements at a variety of companies. 

Matthew Scott Weems was a union carpenter and foreman and ended up owning his own remodeling company. Tom Allen, an electrician, also owned his own company. 

What they all have in common is that, after successful careers, they became teachers at county vocational-technical schools. They made the career shift thanks to the Garden State’s alternate route certification program, which is designed for those who have not completed a formal teacher preparation program in college, but want to be trained to become a New Jersey certified teacher. 

Unlike history, math, science and English teachers, who can transition straight from college to a high school classroom, career and technical education instructors need to have knowledge, skills and insights that can only be acquired after years on the job. 

“It’s vitally important for vocational-technical schools to attract these industry professionals into teaching, because that’s what keeps these programs authentic and aligned to industry and workplace expectations,” said Judy Savage, the executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, the association that represents the state’s 21 county vocational districts. 

For industry professionals, teaching at a vocational-technical school offers the opportunity to pass on knowledge gleaned over a career to the next generation of workers. 

Judy Savage

“I really enjoy and love teaching others,” said Mercadante, 61, who teaches pre-engineering and manufacturing at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools. “I love the nonstop creativity and challenge it takes to hit on all cylinders with different types of learners, and the ability to become a mentor for my students as well as being an inspiring figure in their lives.” 

Mercadante started at aerospace company Singer Electronic Systems (now BAE Systems), where he created a small team to roll out training and create a culture of quality improvement while supervising a staff of 15 engineers, method developers, machine programmers and tool designers.  

Over the span of his career, he worked at a variety of companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Osteotech Inc. and Integra LifeSciences, where he continued training and implementing process improvements. It wasn’t until 2012 that he decided to make the move to teaching. 

“People would constantly tell me, ‘You should be a teacher.’ I prided myself on relentlessly trying different techniques and perspectives until the student’s lightbulb went off,” he said. 

After graduating from Morris County School of Technology, Weems, 56, went straight into the workforce, starting as a carpenter’s apprentice and working his way up as a union carpenter and foreman. About 20 years ago, he ended up taking over the teaching job at his alma mater when his former teacher retired. 

“The things that keep me here are the students and my own personal experience of career and technical education,” Weems said. “I went through the program as a high school student, so I know firsthand the importance of it as well as the relevance. Like my own students, I graduated with a clear plan for not a job, but a career.” 

Courtesy Tom Allen
Tom Allen, an electrician with his own business, also teaches at Ocean County Vocational Technical School.

“I bring a lifetime of work into my classroom every day. My students know where I am coming from, not as a teacher, but a carpenter who makes a very good living at it. It is crucial to set our students up for life beyond high school, and serve a population who choose a different route besides the mantra of having to go to college,” Weems said. 

Allen has worked as an electrician for the last 34 years. He joined the Marines in 1988 after graduating from high school. After he was discharged, he started the electrical apprenticeship course at Ocean County Vocational Technical School. After completing the apprenticeship, he started his own company, Semper Fi Electric Inc. 

In 2012, he began teaching adults in the electrical apprentice program at Ocean County Vocational Technical School, and also worked part-time as a vocational school substitute teacher. He decided to become a full-time teacher at Ocean County Vocational Technical School in Jackson in 2017. 

“While working as a part-time instructor, I found the work challenging and stimulating,” said Allen, who also teaches line dancing at the high school. “I enjoy sharing information and inspiring others to enjoy the things that I am passionate about.” 

DiCostanzo, who earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Indiana, started her career working in an oncology medical/surgical unit of a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. She moved to New Jersey and began working for Regional Cancer Care Associates as an oncology nurse in its outpatient clinics.  

As part of her job, she taught patients about their care and medications, and realized how much she enjoyed teaching. A promotion brought her to the corporate office, where she was responsible for educating front office staff, nurses, physician assistants and doctors about the Oncology Care Model to reduce cost and improve patient care in the seven clinics she oversaw. 

While working at one of the clinics, she met a patient who told her about an open teaching position. She applied and got the job at the Academy of Allied Health and Science, which is part of the Monmouth County Vocational School District. Since 2018, she’s been teaching dynamics of health care, a freshman class in which students earn college credit through Rutgers University, and mind-body medicine, an elective for seniors. 

“I never thought I would teach high school ever in my lifetime,” DiCostanzo said. “I had no idea the county vocational schools even existed, being from another state.” 

“Now that I am teaching, I get to see the beginning of these students’ lives and help them decide if a career in health care is a good fit,” she said. “I love making an impact on students’ lives. It’s a change I didn’t even know I needed, but am so glad I made.” 

Courtesy John Branda
John Branda, who worked as a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, landed a job teaching at the Academy for Culinary Arts and Hospitality Administration within Bergen County Academies in Hackensack.

Branda, 61, said he always wanted to be a teacher, but his high school guidance counselor discouraged him, telling him there were “no jobs and no money” in the profession.

Instead, he went to the Culinary Institute of America and worked for more than 25 years as a chef. He started his career in 1978 as an entry-level cook at the Waldorf Astoria hotel and worked his way up to executive sous chef.

At the Waldorf, he oversaw a $40 million food and beverage and catering operation, producing more than 9,000 meals per day. 

“I was directly in charge of maintaining the highest of standards in creative food quality, developing seasonal menus for four restaurants, 18 banquet rooms and a room service operation for an 1,800-room hotel,” said Branda, who hired, trained, supervised and scheduled 160 culinarians.

“This pressure-filled atmosphere of delivering top results for high expectations helped to form the foundation for my current teaching position,” he said.

After the Waldorf, he and his brother, Dominic Branda, took over a foundering restaurant that became D&J Branda’s Restaurant in Fair Lawn.

In 2003, his brother, who taught at Bergen County Technical Schools in Teterboro, told him about a job opening in the district.

“I was extremely excited to think that my two interests, culinary arts and teaching, could potentially intersect and that I might realize my youthful dream after all,” said Branda, who landed a job teaching at the Academy for Culinary Arts and Hospitality Administration within Bergen County Academies in Hackensack.

“I’m a very proud member of an outstanding school with a great administrative team and teaching staff,” Branda said. “Every year, they set the bar high for themselves, our staff and our students. It’s a wonderful environment to be part of and I strive to be a good teacher and role model daily. I consider working for the Bergen County Technical Schools the best job I’ve ever had.”