High school seniors Ashley Ruiz, of Pleasantville, and Georgia Thompson, of Port Republic, cut school every day.

But the students at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology don't get in trouble. They're among 35 seniors at the school who spend most of their school day at a job site as part of the school's senior internship program.

Crucial to the program are local business people, who agree to mentor the students, serve on advisory boards and are now part of a statewide coalition to promote vocational education and the funds needed to support it.

Spearheaded by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, the New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education will work with the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools to promote career and technical education, partner employers with schools, and help expand vo-tech schools and programs. More than 100 people have already agreed to participate.

"We want businesses to be ambassadors to support career and technical education, give internships, and hire graduates," said Melanie Willoughby, senior vice president of the Business and Industry Association. She said many businesses already do this locally, but they want the issue to have a broader statewide presence.

Judy Savage, director of the schools council, said employers want workers who have up-to-date job skills, but it can be expensive for the schools to buy the needed equipment without state and business support. She said many of the tech high schools have more students apply than they can accept, and they hope to lobby for legislation to get funding so the schools can expand.

Willard Keen, vice president of sales and marketing for Keen Compressed Gas in Millville, said the company has been working with vocational schools in Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties to upgrade their welding programs and encourage more students to consider careers in welding.

""The average welder is 57 years old," he said. "But it's not a career kids think about. It's not glamorous. But there are jobs."

Company President Bryan Keen developed an initiative to upgrade vo-tech welding programs when he served as president of the Gases and Welding Distributors Association in 2011-12. Programs have included sending volunteers into schools to help paint and clean up classrooms, upgrade equipment and modernize programs.

Tim Champion, parts and service director at Gentilini Ford in Woodbine, said the company serves on the Cape May Technical High School advisory board and brings students on site for tours, which also gives them a chance to meet students in person and recruit future employees.

"Our goal is to hire students once they graduate," he said. "You can get a good idea about them while they are here."

Phil Guenther, superintendent at ACIT and past president of the schools council, said about 175 people are on their advisory boards representing businesses ranging from automotive sales and repair to construction unions, health care providers, casinos and hotels.

"We wouldn't be able to do what we do without them," he said. "They advise us on curriculum, what skills students need, equipment purchases that we should have so that students have the skills to get jobs immediately."

Ruiz, a student in ACIT's Culinary and Hospitality Academy, is interning at Preferred Travel in Northfield, where she has answered phone calls, helped update customer information and prepared tour packets. She started about a month ago and said she is learning a lot from the agents. .

"I listen to them talk to customers, the questions they ask, how to speak to them," she said. She said she was very shy at first, but already feels more confident. She dresses professionally, and said the experience has made her realize that she would enjoy a job interacting with people.

"I am a people person, I'm responsible, and I have good management skills," she said.

Preferred Travel Owner Jeanette Giemza said it's a great idea for students to get real-life job experiences so they can see what they enjoy and what will be expected of them.

"This is a tough business," she said. "You have to have good communication skills and be able to deal with crises. But there are different opportunities, with agencies, cruise lines, tour operators. Students can see what they enjoy."

Gina DeMaio, who coordinates the internship program at ACIT, said students sign up for the internships, then she tries to match them with a business. She said she could use more opportunities in IT departments, and she also encourages students to go out and ask businesses on their own, then she can follow up. Students complete a weekly time sheet that also includes information on their attendance, attitude and skills.

Thompson was already working at ShopRite in Galloway Township when she asked about doing an internship in the bakery. She plans to attend Atlantic Cape Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts next year and said the internship has given her the opportunity to learn new skills. On a recent day she decorated cupcakes to look like Sesame Street characters.

Bakery manager Becky Laielli said Thompson will do some of the same work as an employee, but is given the chance to try new things.

DeMaio visits students at the job sites, and said they have had to adapt to dressing, speaking and acting like adults.

"They are representing themselves, ACIT and the business," she said. "It makes me feel so good to see them doing something they like."

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