From the Asbury Park Press: Fixing a Broken Ladder to the Middle Class

April 8th, 2019

This article originally appeared on April 8, 2019 in the Asbury Park Press.

JACKSON — It once was for the troublemakers and the misfits.

But Josh Martinez represents a new generation of students at Ocean County Vocational Technical School that not only is finding its passion, but also a foothold on a well-paying career.

“I’m not the smartest person in the world, but working with my hands, I actually like it,” said Martinez, 18 of Upper Freehold Township, putting the finishing touches on a table top in his custom woodworking class.

Martinez appears smarter than he lets on. Ocean County Vocational School is training high school students for trades like manufacturing, auto repair and electrical and quickly putting them on a path to make middle-class wages without the burden of student debt.

The school faces an uphill slog. It needs to convince parents with dreams for their children of a bachelor’s degree — and more — that their program is a viable gateway. And it needs more businesses at the Shore to simply know that highly skilled students are in their backyard.

But as New Jersey scrambles to connect students to employers, educators here say there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. They long have partnered with industry to keep up with the changing economy.

“I get more phone calls than I can put kids to work,” said Mike Lundin, an instructor in the auto collision program.

The Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools in Jackson has more than 300 students who spend part of their day at their home high school and part of their day here.

They learn their craft on high-tech equipment — 3D printers, CNC machines, lathes — that the school is equipped with thanks to a combination of federal grants and gifts from corporate charities.

It’s a hint that the grimy, blue-collar jobs of the past aren’t coming back; students in vocational education need science, technology, engineering, art and math skills as well.

Tom Allen was a student here in the 1980s, when the trades were the last resort for students who weren’t college bound.

He, too, was disinterested in school, preferring instead to work with his hands. And his father, who worked on tugboats in New York Harbor for 40 years, could relate.

Allen now owns Semper Fi Electric in Brick and is an instructor here. It’s a career that can pay upwards of $60,000 a year after five years for students who apply themselves, he said.

“I’ve loved it,” Allen, 49, of Brick, said. “I love working with my hands. I love working hard. In the field, the day flies by.”

Allen offers a success story that is increasingly hard to find. A study by Harvard University found Americans born in the early 1980s have a 50-50 chance of doing better than their parents. And their outcomes are connected to the neighborhoods where they grew up.

The downward mobility runs counter to the myth of the American dream. And it has sent policymakers, educators and philanthropists scrambling to right the ship.

Ocean County Vocational School officials say there are plenty of good-paying jobs available, plenty of highly skilled students, and their partnerships with local businesses can pay off.

NetCetra LLC, an internet services company based in Toms River, provides internships to students at the school, giving them workplace experience that goes beyond computer coding. They learn how to show up on time, meet deadlines, and navigate the pressure — and grind — of the daily routine.

“Maybe it makes their journeys to what they do a little shorter,” said Jim Mahlmann, managing partner at NetCetra. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

But there also appears to be a disconnect. School officials said they have to work hard to convince parents that vocational education can lead their children to a lucrative career. And many businesses, consumed with the hustle of keeping their operations afloat, don’t know the resource is there for them.

Ocean County vocational schools officials said they are working with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to help market the program. And they have an open house scheduled for May 23 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at three locations: Jackson, Brick and Toms River.

“We are forever trying to get our name out with the business community,” said Nancy Weber-Loeffert, former assistant superintendent of the vocational schools who now is a consultant.

“We have business partners we’ve had for years that utilize our services that hire our students that know that we’re here,” she said. “They’ll say vocational schools are the best kept secret. We don’t want to be a secret.”

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