While businesses typically engage in mentorships and internships to develop their future work forces, they reach only a handful of students each year. By contrast, South Jersey companies have invested their efforts in elementary, middle school and high school educators to indirectly prepare students for jobs.
"The lack of employees with the right skill sets is something that is, in some measure, a product of our school systems," said Rich Rosenblatt, a partner in the labor employment practice of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP who has been a panelist for the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey's South Jersey Institute for Educators program for 10 years. "Pulling together a variety of teachers from school districts at different grade levels has been a fascinating experience, because we convey to them not what businesses are looking for in terms of who they will hire, but we have the opportunity to put some fingerprint on what they're doing in schools to give them a head start."
Since the institute's launch in the summer of 1992, nearly 500 teachers in seven South Jersey counties have incorporated the lessons they learned from companies in their classrooms, preparing more than 50,000 students for the regional work force.
"We're encouraging students about how many jobs require ongoing education, which is not something they would think about when they're 14," said Maureen Davis, a history teacher at Cumberland Regional High School, who graduated in the augural class of the institute and served as co-facilitator of the program for three years. "By visiting these companies, we're able to explain to students what they need to get the jobs they want, and create a leadership in them to go after it."
During the three-week summer program, companies across various sectors sponsor about 15 teachers to tour their plants and offices and communicate unique teaching methods aimed at getting students interested in their industries.
"We do numerous things with students, and our work force training program is one of the top in the country — but this is an innovative way to get to them indirectly," said Samantha Un, a spokeswoman for the Moorestown office of Lockheed Martin, which sponsored two teachers for this summer's program. "We've already seen the pipeline expand, and we're starting earlier and earlier in schools. It's really crunch time, especially when there's going to be a skills gap with at least 100,000 engineering positions nationally over the next few years."
According to Kathleen Davis, who has run the program as the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey since 1995, while future growth of the institute relies on securing private-sector funding, the application process has become more competitive among school districts, as the program has been strengthened by adding more businesses in different areas of the local economy, like Virtua in the health care sector, and Mannington Mills Inc., in the manufacturing sector.