From the Star Ledger and nj.com
By Steve Sweeney
New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools are among the best in the country and are critical to our state’s economic future in an era when good-paying jobs in every industry from manufacturing to healthcare to technology require higher skills.
Graduating from one of our county vo-tech schools has meant punching a ticket to a good job for tens of thousands of New Jerseyans. Yet last year, our county vo-techs were forced to turn away 15,500 qualified students because of a lack of available space.
Meanwhile, employers in advanced manufacturing, healthcare, technology and other fields report a shortage of middle-skilled workers – those with valuable vo-tech training and up to two years of county college. A recent McKinsey and Company report identified the “growing mismatch between the type of middle-skilled workers New Jersey has and middle-skill jobs that employers need to fill” as one of our biggest barriers to our future economic growth.
That’s why I announced last week that I am fully committed to developing, passing through the Legislature and sending to the voters for approval next year a major bond issue to fund the construction, expansion and equipment of county vocational-technical skills. It is the best investment we can make as a state to simultaneously create jobs and hold down county property taxes.
Under the leadership of Senator Bob Gordon, D-Bergen, himself a management consultant who worked in his family’s manufacturing business in Paterson, the vocational-technical education bond issue will be one of the top priorities of the bipartisan Legislative Manufacturing Caucus.
The New Jersey we grew up in was a manufacturing powerhouse, anchored by Campbell Soup and RCA in Camden, with glass factories, food-processing plants, shipyards, textile mills and other companies employing hundreds of thousands. Workers without a high school diploma could buy a home, raise their families and retire with a pension. Those days are long gone, but manufacturing isn’t.
Today, New Jersey has 10,552 manufacturers employing 358,000 people who produce 5 to 10 times the output that workers did 30 years ago.
Advanced manufacturing will be an important driver of economic growth, not only in the pharmaceutical, biotech and chemical industries that are a bulwark of New Jersey’s economy, but also in our fastest-growing sector: the logistics industry that is mushrooming because of our transportation infrastructure and our prime location at the center of a Boston-to-Washington market of 60 million people.
New Jersey’s central role as a supply-chain state and the growing business and consumer demand for just-in-time delivery – same day, not overnight – creates an opportunity for New Jersey to be a leader in the additive manufacturing technology that will be needed to make final product changes just prior to shipping from the giant distribution centers that line the turnpike.
Our new caucus needs to take a fresh look at our business-incentive programs to make sure that we provide support not just to established larger companies, but also to the emerging new start-ups being created by millennials that have the best growth potential.
New Jersey has just 16 incubators set up to assist and encourage entrepreneurs – far fewer than the 375 incubators in California and 179 in New York, the McKinsey report noted.
The Manufacturing Caucus will develop strategies to build up the specialized manufacturing our pharmaceutical, biotech, chemical and high-tech industries need, and that will require increased collaboration between employers and our research universities, county colleges and county vocational-technical schools.
That’s why strengthening and expanding our county vocational-technical schools is such an important first step. While 30 percent of our county vo-tech graduates go straight into good-paying jobs in the workforce, another 30 percent go to county colleges and 40 percent go to four-year colleges, particularly schools with strong engineering and technical programs such as the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, Rowan University and Stevens Institute of Technology.
We need to ensure that these students have a clear path from vo-tech to county college to four-year colleges to make sure they can maximize their earnings potential and provide the workforce our advanced manufacturing companies need to grow and succeed.
Preparing the middle-skilled workers that businesses need is critical to our future economic growth and our prosperity.
Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, is the New Jersey Senate president. He represents Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.