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Legislature creates group to train manufacturing employees The new Legislative Manufacturing Caucus aims to issue bonds to fund expansion of technical and vocational schools

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Vocational and technical workers in the state are set to get a large boost from the government.

State lawmakers Tuesday created the Legislative Manufacturing Caucus, which will work over the next year to create legislation that would issue state obligation bonds to fund the creation and expansion of technical vocation schools in the state.

Those schools are generally designed to train workers without four-year college degrees for careers in manufacturing, and give them a path to a four-year degree.

The caucus will be co-chaired by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Fair Lawn), and will be a bipartisan group that will include 14 senators and Assembly members. Assembly Republican Congress leader Anthony Bucco (D-Randolph) will also be part of the group and has pledged support.

The expansion proposal is designed to address the state's shortage of skilled manufacturing and technical workers, Sweeney said during a news conference Tuesday morning in Trenton.

"Expanding high-quality vocational-technical education is critical to our state's future economic growth and the prosperity of our workforce," Sweeney said. "Our excellent county vocational schools were forced to turn away 15,500 qualified applicants last year, even though our increasingly high-tech employers have job vacancies they cannot fill due to a shortage of middle-skilled workers."

Sweeney said that legislation for a new bond issue will be put on the November 2018 ballot. The bond issues are expected to be worth several hundreds of millions of dollars, Sweeney said. An exact amount will be hashed out over the next year once the caucus assesses the full needs of the vo-tech schools in the state.

"While New Jersey has one of the most highly educated workforces in the country, the mismatch of middle-skilled workers — those with a vo-tech education and a couple of years at a county college — with jobs that employers need to fill in sectors like high-tech manufacturing, health care, construction services and heavy vehicle maintenance is a drag on job creation and economic growth," Gordon said during the announcement.

Several business organizations lauded the creation of the new group, including the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

"The Legislative Manufacturing Caucus is an idea that NJBIA has long advocated, and we look forward to working with Sen. Bob Gordon and members of the panel as they bring renewed attention to issues faced by this $44.5 billion manufacturing industry that employs more than 240,000 workers," Michele Siekerka, NJBIA's CEO and president, said in a written statement.

Judy Savage, executive director at the state's Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said during the news conference that the expansion would help young adults who are not looking to attend four-year colleges find definitive career paths.

"A four-year degree isn't for everyone," she said. "The average salary in some manufacturing jobs is $90,000 per year, so we're not talking about low-paying jobs, especially without a B.A."

The bond issue will be similar to the "Building Our Future Bond Act" passed in 2012, in which the state authorized the issuance of $750 million in general obligation bonds to fund infrastructure and academic improvements at public and private higher education institutions.

Sweeney said that, if the measure is approved, the state would work with individual counties to decided how much they need to expand or improve their vocational-technical school facilities, and that there would be a county match.

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