From School Leader: Career and Technical Education on the Cutting Edge

December 6th, 2019

A student in a manufacturing class at Somerset County Vocational & Technical Schools.

This article originally appeared in November/December 2019 edition of The School Leader.

Download the article as it appeared in the printed SchoolLeaderNov-Dec2019.

By Bruno Tedeschi

Those who remember taking woodshop in high school may not recognize the equipment in the wood technology classroom in Hudson County’s Academy for Design and Fabrication at High Tech High School in Secaucus.

Sure there’s a bandsaw, a few drill presses, a planer and other woodworking equipment that are typically found in high school woodshops.

But there’s also a 12-horsepower intelligent three-axis nesting CNC router that can make quick work of a four by eight piece of plywood, cutting it into dozens of precise shapes based on a set of instructions that are programmed into the router’s computer.

Students in the class design the shapes using Computer Aided Design (CAD), and create the instructions for the router using Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). By the time wood is ready to be cut, the students just push a few buttons and watch the CNC router do its work from a safe distance.

This is just one example of what the future of manufacturing looks like. And New Jersey’s 21 county vocational technical school districts have retooled to prepare the next generation of skilled employees.

Students typically gain some work-based learning experience, and often graduate with an industry certification, which indicates student mastery of a particular skill and demonstrates to employers that students are serious about their chosen career pathway.

While the manufacturing sector in New Jersey has shed thousands of jobs in recent decades as large plants like General Motors in Linden and Ford in Edison shuttered, manufacturing remains important to the state’s economy.

But the type of workers needed to fill the jobs of today’s manufacturing sector has changed dramatically.

The repetitive job tasks that were once performed by an unskilled and semiskilled workforce have been replaced by computer-controlled machines that can perform those tasks faster, more precisely and without coffee and lunch breaks.

New Skills for New Jobs The new manufacturing jobs require high-level technical skills, such as CAD/CAM, pneumatics, hydraulics, engineering, production technology, robotics and mechatronics, and programming computer numerical control (CNC) equipment. And, success in today’s manufacturing requires the ability to interpret technical manuals and engineering schematics, as well as essential cross-career skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork.

Employment boards list hundreds of jobs requiring these skills. Manufacturers in New Jersey complain that they cannot find enough skilled workers to fill them.

As a result, High Tech High and other county vocational-technical schools in New Jersey have created a host of new programs that link engineering, design, and advanced manufacturing to prepare students for in-demand careers in this rapidly evolving field. Other county vocational-technical schools have updated their welding, CAD, and engineering programs to integrate specialized equipment and the technical skills that today’s manufacturers desperately need.

“Whether you’re designing a building, or a piece of furniture or something out of metal, design is a process and being able to navigate that process is critical. We ensure that it’s embedded in all of our different programs,” said Gregory Simon, the supervisor of the Design and Fabrication Academy at High Tech High.

“Students have to know the limitations of materials, equipment and costs, and be able to create something and see it to fruition,” Simon said. “That’s critical to all of the different areas and that’s a skill that they’ll use not only in college but in life.”

High Tech High, which is part of Hudson County Schools of Technology, has a partnership with Eastern Millwork, where graduates will work as apprentices at the Jersey City-based custom woodworking company that operates a European-style dual education program called Holz Technik Academy.

While apprentices attend Hudson County Community College with tuition paid by Eastern Millwork, they will receive a salary of $24,000 a year with health benefits and a 401K plan. After earning an associate’s degree, they will continue on at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, where tuition will also be fully paid by the company. When their education is complete, they are guaranteed a $70,000-a-year job at the company.

“I’m getting the experience of working every day and I won’t have the stress of looking for a job after,” said Amar Oshlanovech, who graduated from High Tech High this spring and is enrolled as an apprentice. “When most people go to college, the hardest thing after is finding a job. So many college graduates can’t find jobs.”

Simon said High Tech High’s relationship with Andrew Campbell, the president of Eastern Millwork, has opened his eyes to industry’s need for skilled workers.

“I think that we, as educators, need to understand what the manufacturing industry is like now,” Simon said. “Students need to be exposed to what opportunities there are. Parents need to understand that manufacturing isn’t what it used to be. It’s changing. Automation is not necessarily taking jobs, but it’s changing what types of jobs are available.”

While the apprenticeship program involving High Tech High and Eastern Millwork is unique, other county vocational technical schools around the state have developed programs in advanced manufacturing that are engaging students and preparing them for in-demand jobs.

One common thread among all the programs is the sophisticated equipment needed to teach students about advanced manufacturing. For example, the CNC Router at High Tech High costs $85,000. Fitting a manufacturing lab with equipment such as mechatronics, plasma cutters and CNC machinery can cost several hundred thousand dollars.

The classroom for students in the advanced manufacturing program at Monmouth County Vocational School District is different than most – mainly because it’s not in a school. The classroom is located in low-slung building in an industrial park in Eatontown owned by Festo Didactic Inc.

Festo Didactic, which makes equipment for technical education, such as machining and process automation, partnered with the Monmouth County Vocational School District two years ago to create a shared time program, where students learn all aspects of advanced manufacturing on the latest equipment. Monmouth County Vocational School District rents space from Festo and pays additional fees for the equipment as needed.

Having access to all of Festo’s sophisticated technical training equipment gives the school an opportunity to prepare students for a variety of careers in advanced manufacturing.

“There are a lot of different pathways you can go into depending on which type of manufacturing facility you work in, so we try to branch them and give them as many pathways as we can,” said instructor Stefany Gurgel, a civil engineer by training who became a career and technical education teacher through the alternate route.

“We teach them a little bit about pneumatics and hydraulics. We also learn programmable logic controllers (PLCs). They get to program mechatronics equipment. They learn about about injection molding, vacuum forming, CAD with 3D printing, additive and subtractive manufacturing.”

Denise Kebeck, the principal of Monmouth County Vocational’s shared-time programs, said students enrolled in the advanced manufacturing program can either go straight into industry or continue to college.

“We can provide opportunity for students to attain skills necessary to enter the job force. However, if they choose to go on to higher education, they now have a skill that can support them as they go on to higher education,” Kebeck said. “Not only are the students in our program acquiring industry-recognized certifications from Festo, OSHA, and in CAD, they are also going to articulated college-level programs and earning college credits. So it supports whatever pathway they choose.”

Jordan Varcadipane, who graduated from Monmouth Regional High School this spring, participated in the program for the last two years. Though not required, he did an internship with a local company, Shore Printed Circuits in Eatontown, where he earned $10 an hour and landed a job after graduation.

“I was never really planning on going to college and I think that is one of the major reasons why I went to a vo-tech,” Varcadipane said. “My plan is to stick here and work as long as I can.”

His classmate, Mario Olivera, graduated from Long Branch High School and plans to attend Brookdale Community College, then transfer to New Jersey Institute of Technology to study industrial engineering.

“There’s a smooth transition from advanced manufacturing to industrial engineering,” Olivera said. “A lot of the same concepts are in each of them.”

Though Burlington County Institute of Technology in Medford still has students who are learning traditional skills such as welding, milling and HVAC, the school has begun to attract students who wouldn’t have normally enrolled in a vocational school in years past, said Principal Mike Parker.

The students are more inclined towards applied math and science. They are comfortable with both designing on the computer and using machines to create their designs in the real world.

Parker said he often faces resistance from parents who don’t want their children attending a vocational school.

“One of the more difficult tasks is to get parents over this vocational stigma that’s out there,” said Parker, who added that many parents have a mistaken impression of what a vocational high school is. “We’ve totally transitioned away from simple traditional skills and now you’re seeing more career paths that are wider in range.”

Vocational-technical schools also have difficulties finding teachers with the right experience and credentials to teach highly technical subject material. Schools compete with industry, which pays far more, in most cases.

“Industry experience is the most essential qualification for a CTE teacher,” said Judy Savage, the executive director of the NJ Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. “The state’s ‘alternate route’ provides a pathway to certification, but the extensive training requirements can be a significant obstacle to attracting qualified teachers.”

Another challenge facing vocational-technical schools is identifying the skills most in demand for the ever-evolving local workforce, said Mark Cacace, supervisor of instruction at Passaic County Technical Institute.

All county vocational-technical schools have industry partners that meet regularly with school leaders to ensure that the curriculum remains relevant to today’s workforce, and that training equipment keeps pace with changing technologies and workplace expectations.

“Having a strong network of industry partnerships allows us to tweak our program as needed,” Cacace said.

Passaic County’s industry partners range from small local companies like Paterson-based Metal Components Inc., to global companies, such as Morgan Advanced Materials, which has a manufacturing facility in Fairfield, NJ.

Industry partners also help local manufacturers find much-needed employees. At Viking Yacht Co. in New Gretna, there’s an ongoing need for skilled labor. That’s why the company partnered with Ocean County Vocational-Technical Schools more than two decades ago to introduce high school students to the craft of boatbuilding.

Over the years, more than 100 students from the vocational-technical school have gone through the program, gaining an invaluable experience that would not have been possible in a typical high school setting.

“The students get on-the-job training with experienced crew members building the yachts and they also get to take it back to their class for more in depth training on what they have seen,” said Michael Donahue, the human resources manager at Viking. “It benefits the students, the instructors and it benefits our future workforce.”

Justin Praschil graduated from Ocean County Vocational-Technical School in Toms River in 1999 where he trained to be a residential electrician. He started working at Viking as a student at the high school and has been employed there ever since.

“It was a good program for someone who wasn’t going to go to college,” Praschil said. “It gets you right into the work force. It worked out great for me. I have great benefits, a guaranteed paycheck every week. The company really takes care of you.”

As advanced manufacturing evolves, vocational-technical schools will continue to work in partnership with industry to tweak programs that both meet the needs of employers in advanced manufacturing and provide students with a range of career options for jobs that are in high demand.

“If our goal is to continue rebuild our manufacturing economy, then we need county-vocational technical schools as partners in this effort,” said John W. Kennedy, the CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program. “Manufacturers across the state need highly skilled employees and the county vocational technical schools have done a phenomenal job of helping to meet this need.”

Bruno Tedeschi, a former longtime journalist in New Jersey, is a communications consultant for the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Technical Schools.
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