Posted with permission from NJ Spotlight
Sen. Robert Singer
Sen. Robert Singer, center, at yesterday's hearing on ways the state can better support New Jersey's manufacturing industry including by giving more money to vocational schools

New Jersey voters will decide in a few weeks whether the state should take on more than $100 million in new debt to pay for library capital projects. But even as the fate of that proposed borrowing has yet to be determined, lawmakers are already starting to explore the next big bond issue that could go before voters.

A bipartisan group of legislators that is looking at ways the state can better support an ongoing rebirth of the New Jersey manufacturing industry took testimony yesterday from representatives of the state's 21 county vocational school districts, who are seeking more funding to help keep pace with a rising demand for technical training that's being driven, in part, by the manufacturing sector.

Schools turned away nearly 60% of applicants

This year, the vocational high schools had to turn away nearly 60 percent of their applicants due to a lack of available classroom space, even as companies across the state have been complaining that they can't find enough workers with the right technical skills to fill all available job openings.

To fill the void, the lawmakers are considering floating a new state bond issue to help the vocational schools build new facilities, expand current classroom space, and update equipment. And they learned from the vocational school representatives yesterday that it could take nearly $900 million to fund the projects that the 21 school districts have on their wish lists.

A final draft of the proposed bond issue is still months away from being prepared, and it almost certainly won't be enough to cover the full amount that was outlined yesterday during a meeting at the County College of Morris in Randolph. But the vocational-school officials also made the case that as the job market is starting to tip more toward workers with technical skills, and as the cost of going to a four-year college continues to rise, it makes sense for the state to invest more heavily in career and technical education.

"This is a great way for students and families to save some money on college-education costs," said Howard Lerner, the superintendent of Bergen County's vocational schools.

Soaring interest

New Jersey has raised more than $12 billion in bond sales to help fund K-12 school facilities throughout the state over the last two decades. Another $750 million in bonds were sold in 2012 to pay for capital improvements at four-year and two-year colleges and universities. But only about $150 million has made it to the 21 vocational schools for capital investments, even as they've seen interest among students soar in recent years.

Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said yesterday that of the nearly 30,000 students who applied this year to attend a vocational school, only a little more than 12,000 could be accepted due to space constraints. Her organization also just conducted a statewide needs assessment, and only two schools said they had no need to expand facilities or build new ones to keep up with demand. In all, the council determined there's a need for $891 million in spending to meet the construction, renovation, and equipment needs across the state.

And while some people still consider career and technical training to be "a lesser option" compared to a four-year degree, Savage said many vocational schools are now working to meet the training requirements of some of the hottest sectors in the state economy, including logistics and distribution, and advanced manufacturing.

The lawmakers also learned about a partnership between Morris County's vocational school and the county college, which involves high school students getting instruction inside labs on the college campus. Many are also graduating from the vocational school having already earned college credits. And officials from both schools are also coordinating with local manufacturers to ensure the students are learning skills that can be applied immediately after they graduate, or with just a year of additional training at the college.

Counties to provide matching funds? "The reason we wanted to start something with manufacturing is there was such strong industry needs," said Sharon Castelli, assistant superintendent of Morris County's vocational-manufacturing program. "We had been hearing from small manufacturers that there wasn't enough talent in the pipeline."

Lawmakers would like to see the program adopted by other schools across the state, but it will mean spending money on facilities, and New Jersey is already one of the nation's most indebted states. Any potential bond issue for the vocational-school facilities would come on the heels of this year's ballot question seeking approval for $125 million in new borrowing for library projects.

Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) voiced some concern about the state's available resources during the meeting yesterday, saying "I just don't think the state has enough money to build all the space that's needed."

But Sen. Robert Gordon, who is chairing the bipartisan manufacturing caucus meetings, said after the meeting ended that the final number that lawmakers come up with is likely to be "much smaller" than the amount put forward by Savage's organization. The state would also likely require counties to provide matching funds to stretch the state's dollars.

And Gordon (D-Bergen) said there may be opportunities to offer tax incentives or even give hiring preferences to companies that are willing to participate in a public-private partnership. He also said he sees the scope of the effort as bigger than just helping high school students since the vocational schools also help adults who are trying to adapt to a changing economy as well. "This infrastructure is not just for 15-year-olds, it's for 50-year-olds," Gordon said.