For businesses repeatedly hitting “renew” on job postings, the state Legislature just sent a strong message that real solutions are on the way. Last week, lawmakers gave final approval for $220 million in grants to expand career and technical education programs at 15 New Jersey county vocational-technical school districts.
It will take time, but the prospect is promising: New student capacity will grow by almost 5,000 seats over the next six years. Every graduating class will funnel more young people with technical training and hands-on experience into fields such as HVAC, manufacturing, health care, engineering, restaurant/hospitality and construction.
“The approval of these projects is a tremendous step forward for students, employers and New Jersey’s economy,” said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “This much-needed expansion of career and technical education responds to the needs of employers who consistently struggle to fill well-paying, career-track technical jobs.”
The state’s county vocational-technical schools were searching for ways to expand capacity even before voters approved the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act in 2018, and now they are well-positioned to fulfill carefully developed plans to add seats in high-demand careers.
“The approved projects are squarely focused on increasing enrollment to meet student and employer demand for CTE programs,” said Judy Savage, executive director at the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.
For instance, Sussex County Technical School plans to renovate current facilities to upgrade and expand its allied health, construction trades, electrical and HVAC programs. It also will build a new facility to launch a sports medicine program. SCTS foresees a capacity growth of 286 students through these bond-supported improvements.
The competitive grant process was focused very specifically on meeting labor market demands; proposals had to clearly identify how expansions would fill critical shortages in the workplace.
For example, the latest data ranks Ocean County first in the state for the high value of monthly residential building permits, but the county vocational-technical school district has no plumbing program and runs a steady waiting list for its electrical and welding programs. Bond funding will address that imbalance, enabling Ocean County’s Jackson Center to build a $9.6 million addition and add seats for those and other high-demand occupations, including medical assisting.
“From the outset, the bond act was an economic initiative to enable more young people to pursue high-quality career programs aligned with employer demands,” said Scott Moffitt, NJCCVTS president.
Moffitt is also superintendent of Morris County Vocational School District, which will build a new school on the county college campus for technology, health care and construction programs. It is expected to create seats for 500 additional CTE students, and bond funding will cover 75% of the estimated cost, with the county contributing 25%. That cost-share arrangement is a cornerstone of the bond act, and the required 25% county match demonstrates local support for the projects.
Partnerships are another cornerstone of the bond act, but not just because collaboration is more efficient than duplication. County vocational-technical schools have long committed to designing career pathways that link CTE with work-based learning and college experiences. Students earn industry credentials as well as college credits as part of their career programs.
The Hunterdon County Vocational School District will construct a new facility with full-time programs in manufacturing, construction and energy, hospitality and transportation/distribution/logistics, creating space for up to 500 new students. The project leverages a partnership with a traditional high school to meet core curriculum requirements.
And Gloucester County Institute of Technology will establish an advanced manufacturing and applied science building on the nearby campus of Rowan College of South Jersey, for use by students of both institutions. Since September 2020, Gloucester County listed 574 job openings in the manufacturing field, identified as one of the Top 3 in-demand occupations.
“We repeatedly hear from employers who are struggling to fill technically skilled positions,” said Jackie Burke, who becomes NJCCVTS executive director July 1. “The workforce pipeline needs to catch up, and our county vocational-technical schools are committed to addressing this critical need.”
In Somerset County, home to many companies in the biotech and manufacturing sectors, the bond funding will help remedy a lag in workforce supply, as Somerset County Vocational and Technical Schools opens more seats focused on mechatronics, engineering/advanced manufacturing and biomedical sciences.
At Bergen County Technical Schools, a new school on the Paramus campus will serve 260 students in state-of-the-art, career-specific lab facilities for dental assisting, welding, supply chain management and other fields. Currently, BCTS turns away more than half of student applicants because they cannot be served in existing facilities.
One recurring theme among the varied projects is “green knowledge,” with schools pledging to embed environmental awareness and practices into instruction. Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools will build a Center for Sustainability and Innovation on its existing campus. Programs — including sustainable construction and environmental technology, biotechnology and plant science, and sustainable energy technology — will be housed in a center with solar panels, a green roof and a storm water management system.
“All of these career majors are tied to projected employment in the fastest-growing sectors over the next 10 years,” Superintendent Dianne D. Veilleux said. Middlesex’s proposal cited a projected workforce increase of 61% for wind turbine technicians and 51% for solar photovoltaic installers.
The largest grant of $40 million was awarded to Atlantic County Vocational School District toward costs of a $53.5 million project including renovations, additions and construction of a new building. It will add more than 400 seats in programs for aviation, auto technology, welding, culinary arts, health care and building trades, all critical industries in the county.
Together, the 17 approved projects in 15 districts are expected to add 4,870 new seats for county vocational-technical schools over the next six years
Stories telling the history and future of the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act are consolidated at: careertechnj.org/news-category/bond-act/.