Read this op-ed as it originally appeared February 23, 2021 on nj.com
By Judy Savage and Aaron Fichtner
Jobs and businesses will be forever changed by the coronavirus pandemic, and employers will need new strategies to find and develop the talent they need for future growth.
While post-pandemic workforce needs are still evolving, New Jersey companies can begin building their pipeline of future employees right now by partnering with county vocational-technical schools and community colleges.
Many in-demand jobs in health care, manufacturing, technology, energy and other essential sectors of our economy require specific skills and a broad range of competencies, but not necessarily a four-year college degree.
County vocational-technical schools and community colleges are committed to working together — and with employers — to meet regional labor market needs with high school, degree and certificate programs that prepare young people and adults for well-paying careers.
Employers can help county vocational-technical high schools and community colleges align curricula with the knowledge and skills they value. And working with their local career-focused institutions gives them access to a pool of motivated interns, apprentices and employees who are developing those skills in high school and college career programs.
As we celebrate Career and Technical Education Month in February, it’s a perfect time for employers to get better acquainted with their local career-focused institutions and actively play a role in preparing the next generation of innovators, professionals, and technicians who are essential to their businesses and New Jersey’s economy.
County vocational-technical schools, which serve 35,000 secondary and more than 4,000 adult students throughout the state, still provide an education in traditional careers, such as construction trades and automotive technology. But over the last two decades, career and technical education has evolved to offer new career programs that support New Jersey’s innovation economy in areas such as biomedical and health sciences, engineering, technology, and digital media.
In the last five years, New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools have added 47 new career programs in key industries, including advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and global logistics.
New Jersey’s 18 community colleges enroll more than 66,100 students in career-focused degree programs, and provide workforce development training and continuing education to more than 100,000 adult students. The vocational-technical schools and community colleges in each county work together to provide affordable education pathways that respond to the needs of students and employers by providing career-focused degree and certificate programs aligned with employer needs.
If you have concerns about your talent pipeline, engaging with your local county vocational-technical school or community college should be at the top of your “to-do” list for 2021.
Quite simply, there is no better way to access emerging talent or ensure that what’s being taught in the classroom aligns with industry needs.
During the 2018-19 school year, more than 8,300 county vocational students participated in work-based learning, and most community college students worked part-time while earning their degree. Tapping into this pool of success-driven students is a sure-fire strategy for shaping a diverse and well-prepared future workforce.
Business owners play a critical role in helping career programs at county vocational-technical schools and community colleges keep pace with a fast-changing economy. It’s a small investment of time with a big payoff for employers.
Employers in the key industry sectors of health services, global manufacturing and supply chain management, innovation and technology, and energy can get involved in the Pathway and Skills Collaboratives launched last fall by community colleges. Industry partners will play a critical role as these broad-based groups develop robust and inclusive pathways that offer stackable, industry-valued credentials aligned to labor market needs.
There are other ways employers can build relationships with their county institutions. They can donate equipment, sponsor events, serve as guest speakers or project mentors, offer externships to teachers, or serve as skill evaluators and judges at the many technical competitions that take place around the state.
As we look ahead to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, our goal is to expand employer partnerships, so students will graduate from a vocational-technical high school or community college with sustained work experience related to their career program, as well as industry credentials or a degree that will make them job-ready in a changing economy.
We ask employers large and small to invest in this effort by partnering with county vocational-technical schools and community colleges to strengthen our career programs, hire students and graduates, and help to build the talent pipeline that will ensure their future growth and success.
Judy Savage is the executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. Aaron Fichtner, Ph.D., is the president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.