Finding qualified workers has always been a concern for employers, but in 2013, it was becoming a major topic of conversation for all types of New Jersey companies.
The state was emerging from the recession, and companies were expanding and hiring.
But many of the 20,000 members of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) were saying that entry-level job applicants didn’t have the technical skills they needed for job-specific training, or the “soft skills” that employers value, like teamwork, communications, creative thinking and responsibility.
So Melanie Willoughby, the chief government affairs officer at NJBIA, decided that something had to be done.
“What I was hearing was well beyond your normal griping about the younger generation. It was obviously a systemic problem,” she said. “At almost every meeting I attended, no matter what the meeting was about, somebody raised this, and usually quite emphatically.
“I said to myself, ‘How can this be?’ New Jersey’s public education system is always ranked among the top ten in the nation. Yet we’re not preparing kids for basic jobs?’ So I did some research,” Willoughby said.
Her first calls were to Marie Barry, then the Director of Career and Technical Education at the New Jersey Department of Education, and Judy Savage, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools (NJCCVTS).
“They told me these ‘soft skills’ were part of career and technical education (CTE) high school preparation, whether students were planning on going to college or directly into the workforce,” she said. “Marie invited me to the Pathways to Prosperity conference at Harvard University, where the landmark Harvard School of Education study on the benefits of CTE was discussed and analyzed.”
Willoughby said the conference was, “an epiphany for me. For the past twenty years, our national education mind-set has been to drive all kids to college.
“Well, that doesn’t work for everybody, and it doesn’t necessarily work for our businesses,” she said. “There are many well-paying careers that can be launched with an associate’s degree or industry certification. And at the same time, doesn’t it seem like a good idea to let kids explore various career options early, so they don’t waste their parents’ college money majoring in something they’re not really invested in?
“But the most important thing I learned at the conference was if you ignite young people’s passions, give them hope for a successful future and show them a pathway to their goals, they can achieve anything. Our county vocational-technical schools foster those passions and that hope,” she said.
Willoughby took on the expansion of career and technical education in New Jersey as a personal and professional mission.
“When I first started speaking to employers and other people about 21st century CTE, most of them had no idea what I was talking about. They would say, ‘Oh, you mean the vo-tech schools?’ I would say, patiently, ‘No. They’re not your grandfather’s vocational schools anymore,’” she said.
“I would explain that these schools now provide a pathway for students to explore careers in high school, graduate with an industry certification that can take them directly into the workforce, or go onto college or advanced technical training with a real plan for their future and often with college credits in their pockets,’” she said. “Once they understood that, employers really became engaged.”
Thanks to the efforts of Willoughby and other business leaders, support for CTE grew, especially among New Jersey legislators. In February, 2014, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Stephen Sweeney introduced a package of bills to expand career and technical education opportunities in New Jersey.
NJBIA and NJCCVTS created the NJ Employer Coalition for Technical Education to support the bills, which were co-sponsored by lawmakers from both parties and approved by large margins in the Assembly and Senate. Governor Christie signed the legislation in December, 2014.
The new laws increased New Jersey’s focus on career readiness, and supported the creation of career program partnerships with colleges and employers. Since 2015, 17 new programs have been launched; when fully enrolled, they will provide high-quality CTE opportunities to more than 1000 additional students on an ongoing basis.
During the course of her campaign, Willoughby has visited many New Jersey county vocational-technical schools. And employers who tour the schools feel much more confident about filling their future employment needs, she said.
“These are not your traditional high schools,” Willoughby said. “What impresses people most is the enthusiasm of the students – all of them, whether they’re studying biotechnology, IT, health care, welding, auto technology, culinary arts or engineering. They are not bored, like so many high school students are today.
“They spend about a quarter of their school day learning about what they love, and they understand how their academic subjects relate to that. They are happy and proud to be there. They are knowledgeable and articulate. They are engaged and doing amazing things, both at school and through real-world internships with local employers. And they are eager share what they know,” she said.
“It is experiential education at its best: Show New Jersey’s workforce of the future what the real world of work is all about. Help them explore their passions, give them hope and the tools and skills they need. And they are off and running towards careers, where they will help our businesses grow and succeed,” Willoughby said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”