By Judy Savage
Read this op-ed as it originally appeared on nj.com.
As we celebrate Career and Technical Education Month this February, it’s a good time to recognize the vital role that vocational-technical schools in New Jersey play in helping the state achieve the goals outlined in Jobs NJ.
The state has 21 county vocational school districts – one in each of the state’s counties. Each of them is different and reflects the unique needs of their region.
County vocational schools have been preparing students, as well as adults, for in-demand jobs for years. But the jobs have changed with our technology-driven times and have evolved into a new brand of career and technical education.
Yesterday’s vocational schools trained a small segment of students for careers as plumbers, electricians, welders, carpenters, chefs, cosmetologists and auto mechanics. While today’s vocational schools still train students for these critical jobs, they also offer dozens of in-demand career programs in advanced manufacturing, health care, biomedical sciences, digital media, computer science, engineering and finance that many people don’t associate with vocational schools.
Career and technical education, or CTE, is no longer about preparing young people for a single job, but rather for a broader career pathway that will likely include some kind of postsecondary education and a lifetime of on-the-job learning.
Today’s CTE is aligned with math, science and technology, as well as core skills like communication, problem-solving and teamwork, to ensure that students will be well-prepared to succeed in a technology-driven global economy.
CTE students meet two sets of high school requirements – all of the academics required for high school graduation and admission to college, as well as rigorous technical coursework aligned to industry standards. They also get work-based experience through an internship or paid employment, and either earn industry credentials or pass a technical skills assessment to demonstrate their skills.
Demand for CTE in New Jersey is exploding, with more students and parents clamoring for these career-focused opportunities than our schools can serve.
Enrollment in county vocational schools is up 41% since 2000, and NJ’s county vocational-technical schools are forced to turn away more students than they accept each year.
In 2017, almost 17,000 applicants could not be served because the capacity of vocational schools and programs was maxed out. With employers in all industries struggling to fill technically skilled positions, it’s a disconnect that New Jersey just can’t afford.
In 2018, voters approved a major bond act that will provide $275 million to expand county vocational-technical schools to serve more students and address the needs of New Jersey employers. Vocational schools will soon be submitting applications to expand facilities and add the high-tech equipment needed to prepare more students for lucrative careers that require technical certifications and some post-secondary education, but not necessarily a four-year college degree.
Providing these programs at the county level is cost-effective and builds on the existing relationships between county vocational schools and county colleges. Vocational schools also work closely with employers in their counties to align their curriculum with current and future industry standards.
Talent is New Jersey’s greatest asset. With the NJ Jobs initiative, the governor has taken an important step toward ensuring the residents of the state will have the skills they need for the workforce of the future. And county vocational schools will play a vital role in preparing students for those jobs.
Judy Savage is the executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.