Melanie Willoughby, executive director of the New Jersey Business Action Center (NJBAC), has spent the last decade working to expand and enhance career and technical education (CTE) in New Jersey. Her ongoing advocacy made her the clear choice for the 2021 CTE Leadership Award, presented by the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools (NJCCVTS).
Prior to joining the NJBAC in 2018, Willoughby served as the chief government affairs officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA). While in this role, Willoughby met former NJCCVTS Executive Director Judy Savage, who retired this past summer. That meeting launched a partnership between the two organizations that has led to greater awareness and resources to create and expand CTE programs aimed at meeting the needs of New Jersey employers.
“When Melanie and NJBIA began to tout the value and importance of career and technical education, business leaders and state decision-makers took their message seriously,” said Savage, during the Sept. 22 award presentation. “As we talked to leaders in the Legislature, they understood the need to make CTE expansion an economic priority for New Jersey, and momentum began to grow.”
Over the summer, the state Legislature awarded $223 million in grants as part of the 2018 voter-approved Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act. That first round of grants will support 17 projects at 15 county vocational-technical school districts, adding new programming as well as space for more students. Another $52 million in additional grant funding will add to the impact on both education and business in New Jersey.
“It has been a long journey, but unquestionably, the recently awarded grants had their genesis in the NJBIA conference room almost 10 years ago,” noted Savage. “Without Melanie as our visible and vocal champion, along with the active engagement of NJBIA and employers, the Bond Act would not – could not – have come to fruition.”
New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way offered her congratulations to Willoughby on the award. “Melanie Willoughby is an experienced leader whose wisdom and friendship is valued not only by her colleagues at the Business Action Center and across the Department of State, but by workers and businesses throughout New Jersey. I’m so pleased to congratulate Melanie on this well-deserved honor.”
Willoughby accepted the award with sincere gratitude. “I took to heart what you do for students, ensuring they have pathways to meaningful careers and also helping those entering college start out with credits and less debt,” she said. “I recognized the value of career and technical education and made it my mission to help others realize it as well, including legislators, parents and the business community. Today, there is an entire section of the NJBIA dedicated to workforce development, with county vocational-technical schools integral to that effort.”
“Melanie’s leadership and support has been instrumental in increasing employer awareness of career and technical education and bringing county vocational-technical schools to this exciting period of growth,” said NJCCVTS Executive Director Jackie Burke. “Her continuing efforts to connect employers with our schools are incredibly valuable to students and industry partners alike.”
Additional Reading: Meet the 2021 CTE Leadership Award Winner, Melanie Willoughby
Melanie Willoughby is a seasoned government relations strategist who has worked with state and local levels of government as an advocate for businesses of all sizes. “I’m from the state government and I’m here to help,” has become her go-to mantra. And, her words are genuine.
Her ongoing commitment to aiding business owners in New Jersey has earned her a place among New Jersey’s most influential economic development leaders, according to ROI-NJ.
Currently, Willoughby is executive director of the New Jersey Business Action Center (NJBAC), a position she has held since 2018. She oversees the business-first resource, leading with a dedication to help businesses navigate obstacles and maximize growth opportunities. Before joining NJBAC, Willoughby served as the chief government affairs officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA), which is the nation’s largest statewide employer association. Her recognition of the role career and technical education plays in meeting employer demands and building a strong economy made her and the NJBIA invaluable partners of the New Jersey Council of County-Vocational Technical Schools (NJCCVTS).
Willoughby also served for 17 years as the president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, which represents more than 3,500 retail stores across the state. She gained commitments from employers to hire more than 3,000 women on welfare for jobs with career opportunities. During her career with the state, she further advocated for women by developing legislation on domestic violence and displaced homemakers.
Willoughby was a member of the first class of women admitted to Rutgers College in 1972, graduating in 1976. A true trailblazer, she was the first woman president of the Rutgers Student Government Association, and the first woman to receive the Rutgers Alumni Association’s highest honor – the “Loyal Sons and Daughters” award, prompting a name change to add “and Daughters”. She also was admitted to the Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2005.