Advanced manufacturing and mechatronics programs: New and in demand at NJ county vocational-technical schools

February 24th, 2017

Manufacturing is thriving in New Jersey, but many jobs in the industry are very different than they were 20 years ago.

Employers say they have a hard time finding qualified people to fill high-paying positions that do not require a bachelor’s degree, but do demand advanced technical skills in fields like design, digital electronics, engineering, mechatronics and automation.

Over the past few years, thanks to partnerships with industry and colleges, NJ county vocational-technical schools have launched programs to meet this need and prepare a pipeline of employees with clear pathways to successful careers in 21st century advanced manufacturing.

The two newest programs, both opened in September 2016, are:

  • Burlington County Institute of Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, a partnership with Rowan College of Burlington County at BCIT’s Medford campus, serving both high school and adult students.
  • Somerset County Vocational and Technical Schools’ MEAM (Mechatronics, Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing) program, a partnership with Raritan Valley Community College.

BCIT assistant superintendent Dr. Todd Bonsall said the career and technical school and the college worked together on the shared vision for an advanced manufacturing and fabrication program that would serve both Burlington County residents and companies.

“We became partners as a way to give people the tools they need to enter, advance and flourish in this growing industry, from high school and onto a college degree, while earning NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) Level I & II certificates along the way,” Dr. Bonsall said.

“RCBC’s access to a $770,000 National Science Foundation grant and the available space on the BCIT Medford campus provided the perfect combination to offer the program to both high school and adult learners,” he said.

BCIT high school students take their classes at the Center during the day; in the evenings, adult students receive instruction though a program jointly operated by BCIT and RCBC.

Rowan University and industries like Westampton-based Inductotherm are also involved with the program.

US Rep. Leonard Lance (second from right) toured Somerset’s MEAM program on February 23. He is joined by (from left) Dr. Michael John McDonough, President, Raritan Valley Community College; Dr. Chrys Harttraft, SCVTS Superintendent; and MEAM students William Smith, of Somerset, and Stephen Demcher, of South Bound Brook. 

Somerset County’s MEAM partnership also developed from a shared understanding of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) employment opportunities in New Jersey and the need to create an employee pipeline with a broad range of opportunities.

SCVTS superintendent Dr. Chrys Harttraft said SCVTS, RVCC and their industry partners “had a great vision, but we would not have been able to launch it without the county vocational-technical school grant program approved by the Legislature and the Governor.

“The students get hands-on workforce experience, industry credentials and college credits. They are prepared for a broad range of career options, whether they want to work immediately after high school as technicians or go on to a two or four year college engineering program,” Dr. Harttraft said.

Other advanced manufacturing programs at county vocational-technical schools include:

  • Bergen County Technical Schools’ Applied Technology High School, at Bergen Community College, giving high school students a head start on an associate’s degree in engineering technology.
  • Hudson County School of Technology’s D-Fab (design and fabrication), a collaboration with employers such as Eastern Millwork and NJIT, New Jersey City University and Hudson County Community College.
  • Middlesex County Vocational and Technical School’s pre-engineering and manufacturing technology program, preparing students to install, troubleshoot and support the production process for automated manufacturing.
  • Morris County Vocational School District’s EDAM (engineering design and advanced manufacturing) program, at the County College of Morris, where students learn in CCM’s engineering labs and can earn an associate’s degree within one year of graduating from high school.
  • Passaic County Technical Institute’s manufacturing technology program, which trains students in the metal fabrication industry with state-of-the-art equipment, industry partnerships and college credits from Bergen Community College.

As word of the new advanced manufacturing programs has spread, more counties are considering new programs in this area or incorporating manufacturing skills into existing programs.

“Parents and potential students have heard about our program and are eager to learn more about this hands-on real world experience in high school and the ability to train for a successful career in what has become a very high-tech industry,” said Dr. Bonsall of BCIT.

“The students just love it because they are so engaged,” Dr. Harttraft said.  “Kids today are wired to create things.  They take a project and think:  ‘How can I make this work?’  And they do.”

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