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Colleges hope training effort lets N.J. workers compete for specialized jobs

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Plenty of talk about the economy centers on companies shipping jobs overseas, but one group of state colleges is aiming to improve training so that New Jersey technology companies can one day hire home-grown talent, instead of having to look overseas for high-skill workers.

“For this grant, it was on the proposers to show which areas in the country have the highest composition of men and women working on H-1B nonimmigrant visas, and North Jersey was chosen,” said Gale Tenen Spak, associate vice president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which will share the $5 million grant with six other colleges in the state’s northern footprint. “Many of the technical expertise that companies look for is coming from people who are not American citizens, so the goal for this program is to train New Jersey residents on the skills those people now possess to permit them to, one day in the future, occupy high-level positions held by those H-1B workers.”

Presently, said Maxine Ballen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Technology Council, employers in New Jersey “don’t want to be told where they hire their workers from,” and “if they want a worker from France with a certain skill set, then they’ll hire them.” But Spak said companies wouldn’t need to hire new employees from other countries to complete the most specialized tasks if they sent their existing, less-skilled workers to the colleges’ training programs, which she said are “about upgrading folks who are already at these companies to the higher-paid positions held by H-1B workers.”

After being laid off from a project manager job he held at Pfizer Inc. for 15 years, Paul Michaelsen realized he needed technical training in specialized areas, like cloud computing, to re-qualify for his position and stand out as a 54-year-old job candidate in a sea of recent college graduates — which is why he enrolled in one of NJIT’s 12-week training programs.

“At my age, by the time I obtain a bachelor’s degree, I’d be near retirement … so I believe this short-term training approach puts me on faster track to get back into the work force,” Michaelsen said. “Pharmaceutical companies are really in a metamorphosis of how they do business, and as global companies, they can get skills and talent from anywhere in the world. I think after I learn the technical side of the job, they’ll take a more serious look at what I can offer.”

While Michaelsen chose to enroll in NJIT’s noncredit cloud computing certificate program, the North Jersey colleges receiving a portion of the four-year grant — which include Rutgers University’s Newark campus and five area community colleges — offer a multitude of courses ranging from undergraduate-level mobile app development to graduate-level big data mining year round.

To determine the content of their classes, the schools work in partnership with New Jersey’s technology industry groups and large employers like IBM and AT&T to train the state’s job seekers in “exactly the skills and jobs that are currently performed by H-1B visa holders, so we’re not just training people for training’s sake,” Spak said.

“Companies are making their off-the-shelf training materials available to all of the colleges in this program, so we all have access to a gold mine of material detailing what employers need from workers in real time,” Spak said. “In the long run, having these training materials will keep our regular student body geared in the pipeline to get jobs, so that in the future, companies can’t say they had to hire a foreign H-1B visa worker because they couldn’t find any qualified candidates in New Jersey with the right unique skills to fill the job.”


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