From ROI-NJ: Leader of N.J. council says vo-tech schools are evolving, and cutting-edge learning environment is attracting students

January 17th, 2020

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

Read this article as it originally appeared Jan. 16, 2020 in ROI-NJ.

It’s a simple statement.

“The demand for career and technical education in New Jersey has gone through the roof,” Judy Savage begins. “Enrollment in our vo-tech schools is up more than 34% since the year 2000. And it continues to grow.

“In fact, county vocational schools have been turning away as many or more kids as they’re able to accept. The last time we collected the data, there were 17,000 high school students in New Jersey who applied to a county vocational school and didn’t get accepted.”

Savage was speaking at the recent ROI-NJ Thought Leadership Series, “Training the Next Generation: Vo-Tech’s Evolution as Your Workforce Solution.”

Savage, the executive director at the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, told the audience that the high demand for career and technical education represents a major shift from outdated perceptions about vocational schools being for less-capable students, as well as the significant need for skilled employees.

“It’s a total disconnect with any employer who is saying, ‘I’m concerned about my future workforce,’” she said.

Her mission is to change that.

“We need kids with technical skills all across the board, whether it’s in the trades or in STEM, cybersecurity or any career path,” she said. “Thankfully, that’s a message that resonated with the Legislature. The state will be providing $275 million to expand county vocational schools in the next year or so.

“This is a huge opportunity for the vocational schools and for the employer community to work together. It is needed in technically skilled occupations that are in really high demand. So, we see this as the start of a conversation about how we can work together and make sure that we maximize this opportunity.”

ROI-NJ sees it as an opportunity to educate our readership. Here’s a question-and-answer session with Savage to discuss the situation.

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

ROI-NJ: Talk about how your role has changed as executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, a position you’ve held since 2001?

Judy Savage: I’ve had a front-row seat to this evolution of county vocational schools from the old vo-tech that many of us remember to very much in-demand career and technical education high schools. If you haven’t been to one of our county vocational schools lately, you’d probably be surprised at what you’re going to see. You’re still going to find programs like welding, culinary arts, carpentry, automotive. Those are the mainstays of vocational education, and our schools are still committed to do that and they do it very well — and they do it with all the new technology involved.

But, alongside these kinds of programs, you’re going to find new things, like advanced manufacturing, which is huge. Allied health programs, from training nurse assistants to more science-based programs, which are preparing the next generation of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, etc. And there are biotechnology programs that are research-based.

We have digital media and digital design. This is where it’s at in communications, and our students are learning the new skills. There’s computer science, cybersecurity, engineering: Drone technology and aviation are part of all these programs. There’s business and finance. At Bergen Tech, they have the Wall Street ticker tape running in the class.

All of this represents a major shift away from what we used to have, which was a few kinds of vo-tech programs that served a small segment of the population, to a really broad swath of career and technical education programs that serve all types of students. If a student is aiming for a top four-year college career at a competitive university, they can get a leg up. And the more traditional vocational student, who really doesn’t love the academic classroom but thrives in a more skill-based, hands-on environment, does beautifully.

ROI: The phrase ‘continual learning’ is a buzzword in today’s workplace — but it’s been the idea behind vo-tech schools since they started. Talk about how CTE schools use this concept.

JS: Take the traditional carpentry student. They might come out of a carpentry program and go right to work for a local contractor and then continue to learn and advance their skills. Or, they might go into a labor union and become an apprentice, where they’re going to receive four years of on-the-job and classroom training before becoming a full-fledged journeyman carpenter. They might ultimately start their own business. They might even decide that they love the larger commercial construction business and go on to become an engineer or a construction manager. Today’s career and technical education programs need to prepare students for all those kinds of options. And we’re here for them along the way as their needs change, if they need to come back to us.

It’s no longer an either/or: academics or career technical education. CTE programs are both. They infuse math, science and all of the key workforce skills: communications, problem solving and teamwork. These things are all part of the career technical education program, because students need to be prepared for all options. Students must meet two sets of high school standards: All the regular academics that we all went through in high school to be prepared for college, and they need a very rigorous set of technical standards that are aligned to industry.

ROI: Aligning with industry: great concept. Everyone wants to have education tied to careers. Talk about how CTE schools do that in a hands-on way?

JS: Employers play a critical role in ensuring that CTE programs are aligned with their expectations and workforce needs. Every program has an advisory board that includes industry representatives who ensure that the curriculum and equipment stay on the cutting edge, so that student learning is in sync with industry standards.

Generally, all of our programs have some kind of work-based learning experience. That’s critical and important. That’s what makes it real. And, wherever it is possible, students are earning an industry credential, something that’s recognized by industry, while they are doing it.

ROI: New Jersey is fortunate in that we have a vo-tech school and a county college in each county. But they are not all the same. Talk about the differences?

JS: The county colleges and county vocational-technical schools are separate entities, but they work closely together to provide career pathways for students and meet regional workforce needs. This collaboration enables many to earn college credits as part of their high school career program — giving them a head start on a college degree.

Each county vocational-technical school fits the needs of the region it serves. They have mix of programs and deliver the programs in different kinds of ways. You might have a full-time career and technical high school that offers a dozen or more different career programs under one giant roof. You might have some smaller career academies that focus on particular themes such as STEM, health care or information technology.

We also have CTE programs in many of the local high schools, which are doing a great job of developing more programs. But some of the programs are very hard to deliver in a local high school, because they take a lot of space and require specialized equipment and hard-to-find teachers.

ROI: Last question. What does the future look like? If we talk again five years from now, what do you hope we’ll be talking about?

JS: I think there’s going to continue to be lots of changes. The first thing is this bond act, which is going to make available some money for expansion and for new programs. So, some of the things our schools are looking at now — our continued expansion for manufacturing programs, logistics and global supply chain programs — will be fully implemented. This is an emerging area for county vocational schools. I think Middlesex and Passaic were the first two out of the box in terms of developing programs in that area. This is a huge industry sector for New Jersey. And we’ll definitely continue to see growth in tech, including cybersecurity, which we’re just beginning to get out of the box. Morris was the first district to start a cybersecurity program, but, as technology advances, the enormous demand for cybersecurity professionals will continue to grow and county vocational schools can help meet the need.

Continued growth and evolution requires greater collaboration with business and education, and I hope that we’re going to continue to see more partnerships with New Jersey businesses, growing collaboration between programs at the county vocational school programs and the local district, and even more partnerships with the county colleges and four-year colleges.

Finally, I think you’ll see even greater emphasis on work-based learning, getting high school kids out of the school, out of the classroom and into real work-based experiences. Everybody’s doing it a little bit, but the vocational schools are committed to doing more of it. State policy is going to be pushing in the direction of doing more of it. That is a huge opportunity, because the best training for a job is having a job and seeing how it really works.

For more information about career and technical education in New Jersey, visit careertechnj.org.

Read more from ROI-NJ:

Local 825’s Lalevee says automation isn’t killing union jobs, it’s changing them — so his union must update training, too
Where business meets education: Key to vocational training is working with companies, officials say

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