This has been an extraordinary year for New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools community.
As always, our schools received national attention with top spots in the annual high school rankings by US News and World Report and Newsweek.
Three of our county vocational-technical high schools won national Blue Ribbon School designations – the highest honor in our country’s public education system – from the US Department of Education. Fifteen New Jersey county vocational-technical high schools have won Blue Ribbon awards in the past three years, and 19 have been designated since the program began in 2006, which is really something to celebrate.
A county vo-tech superintendent – Dr. Phil Guenther of Atlantic County Institute of Technology, a former President of NJCCVTS – was named New Jersey Superintendent of the Year, the first time that’s happened in twenty years.
But this past year has also been a time of intense legislative interest and activity here in New Jersey on behalf of career and technical education.
Working with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association – our statewide Business Partner of the Year in 2013 – we formed the NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education, which now has almost 200 members representing businesses large and small throughout the state.
With leadership from Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney and their staffs, we helped develop and obtain bi-partisan approval for legislation to expand and enhance career and technical education opportunities and provide a pipeline of skilled workers for New Jersey employers.
These proposals went from being a vision conceived by Assembly Speaker Prieto in January to bills approved by the Legislature and on the Governor’s desk in October. It all happened in ten months, which in state government terms is warp speed.
It was clear from the start that Senators and Assembly members from both parties believed the time was right to focus on career and technical education as a real economic and educational investment in New Jersey.
Over the past three or four years, the national debate on education and workforce development has begun to shift from the “college for all” mentality of the past 30 years to something like “skills beyond high school for all.”
In study after study, report after report, from places like Harvard and Georgetown, the Education Commission of the States, and business and policy organizations throughout the country, experts are saying what those of us in the New Jersey county vocational-technical community already know:
• That too many students are graduating from high school without the skills they need for either the workplace or higher education, and that enhanced career and technical education may be the answer.
• That while a four-year college is a great (though expensive) option for many students, there’s no guarantee any more that a college degree alone will launch a student into a well-paying career, and that there are millions of good jobs that require high-level technical skills and an associate’s degree.
• And that career and technical education in high school accelerates the success of all types of students by focusing their interests, exposing them to the workplace, and providing opportunities to earn credentials and college credits.
The “news” page of our Careertechnj.org website includes stories and editorials from major news outlets – like the New York Times, Bloomberg, USA Today, National Public Radio, the Atlantic, Time and The Nation magazines, and the national news networks – talking about the benefits of CTE for students and employers. The most recent issue of the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine focused exclusively on career and technical education.
Mike Rowe, the former Ford pitch guy who hosted “Dirty Jobs” and now CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” has become an outspoken proponent of CTE, with interviews, appearances, and a website to promote opportunities that don’t require a four-year degree.
The Buffalo News featured the CTE opportunities offered by the Essex County Vocational-Technical Schools in a major story, and said in editorials that this is the kind of high school education system that could save Buffalo’s struggling schools.
Here in New Jersey, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno celebrated CTE Month in February and beyond by visiting county vocational-technical schools throughout the state, and she continues to talk about our schools as a critical element of New Jersey’s workforce development system.
Even the Gallup Poll has joined the party. According to a recent national survey on education issues, 87 percent of Americans believe that high school students should receive more education about possible career choices, and 86 percent said skills such as dependability, persistence and teamwork are very important in helping high school students get a good job.
The legislative package on the Governor’s desk is a very important step forward, both because of the proposals themselves and the spotlight this effort has trained upon our county vocational-technical schools. But it is up to us to keep the momentum going here in New Jersey.
As superintendents, board members and administrators, we must develop more active and consistent outreach to our state legislators.
Of course, our Freeholder boards and county executives drive our schools. But the Senators and Assembly Members who represent us identify strongly with their home counties and are very proud of successes like our schools. They are eager to hear from us and when they can, they are eager to help us develop relationships and partnerships.
This is our time in the policy spotlight and we welcome the chance to work with our local and state leaders to address workforce needs, expand opportunities for young people and help to grow our county and statewide economies.