Daniel Sinclair, president of the New Jersey School Boards Association, recalls with a chuckle how he pushed both his sons to go to college when he should have let the younger child pursue a different path.
A professional educator for nearly four decades, Sinclair spent many years as a cooperative education industrial coordinator in which he secured internships for high school students.
Sinclair has two sons: one graduated from college and is a banker. Another son started college, dropped out, and found a career working with his hands.
“When it came time for my [younger] son, I insisted he to go to college. We forced him to go to college for a couple years but he did not want anything to do with it,” Sinclair said. “He came out, starting selling pizzas, delivering pizzas. Finally he applied for a couple jobs, got a job within the [public works] department in one of the towns in our area. Now he is learning plumbing, electricity, carpentry, he knows how to plow the streets, he does landscaping, and he is as happy as he can be. He found his niche.”
His younger son is one example of countless adults who did not earn a college degree but found their own career pathway. They are working jobs that pay decent wages and are necesary to support the economy.
The New Jersey School Boards Association recently completed a white paper titled “Educational Opportunities for the Non-College Bound Learner.” The organization spent a year focusing on students who are preparing to enter the workforce directly from high school.
The paper listed 69 recommendations to support continuing technical education programs. The proposals center on funding, resources and connections between businesses and school districts.
“For instance, we want to bring back the auto mechanics, allied health, hair care and beauty products,” Sinclair said. “We need to think outside the box. For instance, if we have a weight room, we need to think about training kids for that particular area. We know there are emerging markets and emerging jobs that we don’t yet know about but we can’t forget the jobs of today.”
Shortage of workers
Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, has been briefed on the NJSBA report. “Many of the recommendations dovetail with our report called the Education Equation,” she said.
Siekerka said she has heard from New Jersey companies that are having difficulty hiring people with technical and vocational skills.
“Our members tell us every day they are struggling to find workers,” Siekerka said, citing welders, plumbers, and computer coders. “We are told that employees being on time is a challenge. Manufacturing, distribution and transportation industries are having prospective employees failing drug tests. We have tens of thousands of middle-skill jobs that remain unfilled.”
Some funding for vocational education around the state will come from the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act, which voters approved in November 2018. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-29th District, said the $500 million in proceeds from the bond issue will be spent as follows: $350 million will be used for county vocational school expansion and upgrades and school security projects; $50 million will be spent for county colleges to expand their career and technical education seats; and $100 million will be spent for school district water infrastructure improvement grants.
Sinclair said Ruiz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, understands the value of funding continuing technical education. He thinks vocational technical schools offer the keys to filling the openings Siekerka describes, but the institutions have limited capacity. So he wants comprehensive public high schools to be funded to offer vocational and technical skills.
“There are so many kids in need,” Sinclair said. “How are we as comprehensive high schools going to put programs together that train kids?”
Another challenge is to convince high school teachers to introduce students to vocational apprenticeships and not just four-year and two-year colleges, Sinclair said. The problem is cultural, he said: high schools list the universities their seniors will be attending yet little fanfare is made if someone is entering a career path directly after high school.
“We try to educate kids at an early age but we need to do an awful lot more,” Sinclair said. “Youngsters are in eighth grade and educators will start to ask ‘Do you want to go to technical school? What about being a carpenter or a plumber?’ And the kid does not know about these occupations.”
“There are a million different reports out there,” Sinclair said. “The message is fine but we need results now.”