Faced with a shortage of skilled workers, more employers in southern New Jersey are expected to turn to trade schools to fill a gap in professional skills.
For generations, such schools have worked for bedrock industries such as Cumberland County’s glass-blowing and Atlantic City’s culinary and hospitality trades.
And with an aging work force and growth in manufacturing expected once the economy improves, trade and technical skills will be in even higher demand.
Inevitably, employers are going to have to bear more of the financial burden in training to fill these positions, as area automotive repair shops have done through a long-standing partnership with the Atlantic County Institute of Technology.
“I’m a big proponent of young kids getting into the business, whether they go on to college or not,” said Jeff Walker, owner of Walker’s Automotive Service on Delilah Road in Pleasantville. “They have to start somewhere. I try to help out as much as I can.”
His shop is among the dozen garages in Atlantic County that offer summer internships to juniors at the technical school with the prospect of full-time employment once they graduate the following year.
“The kids in this program want to be there rather than someone who isn’t sure,” said Walker, of Egg Harbor Township. “This is the career they’ve chosen. They’re the most motivated and put out the most effort to learn.”
The program is modeled after similar ones long sponsored by Detroit’s automakers.
Walker knows a little about the variety of skills a modern auto technician needs. He has 40 years of experience and in 2005 was named the NAPA ASE Tech of the Year, which garnered him a full-page ad of recognition in Time magazine.
Today, he serves on an advisory board for the technical school and has helped expand the local internship offerings to after-market companies such as auto parts stores and tire shops.
“I fully support it. The quality of the students you get is superior,” he said.
And that is an advantage for any business.
Skilled trade positions are the hardest jobs to fill, according to a 2012 survey by the employment company ManpowerGroup. In each of the past three years, this group has topped engineers, IT staff and teachers, the company’s annual survey of employers found.
More than half of employers cited a lack of available talent as a reason available positions went unfilled.
As a result, more companies are offering in-house training to bring workers up to speed on job duties. Others are offering greater incentives to the workers they have to keep them from leaving for greener pastures, the survey found.
“The average age of technicians is 45,” Walker said. “There is going to be a severe shortage of skilled workers.”
Respond to demand
Automotive instructor Curtis Silver said the two-year program at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology gives students the fundamentals in being a technician. Students can go on to take more advanced classes specializing in particular manufacturers at community colleges.
“Our job is to teach them the nuts and bolts. This may be the first professional job they’ve had. There is a lot to learn about a work environment we can’t simulate here, what it means to work with customers who expect their cars back on time and repaired correctly,” Silver said.
Trade schools in southern New Jersey have always taken their cues from employers to craft lesson plans that will prepare students for actual jobs, said Philip J. Guenther, superintendent at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology.
He also serves as president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Technical Schools.
This close relationship is important for the schools to give students the best chance of success in the local job market.
“We had a successful program with the carpenters union. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the formal program in recent years because work has slowed down in the union,” he said.
The school also offers an intensive 13-month practical nursing program, he said. Its Culinary and Hospitality Academy feeds Atlantic City’s demand for skilled restaurant staff.
“We have 75 partners on our advisory board. We work with all of them to develop the curriculum and make sure the equipment we are using and the instruction we are providing is up to date with what is happening in industry,” he said.
Jake Lash, a 2012 graduate of the Atlantic County Institute of Technology, spent a recent morning adjusting the alignment of one car and putting new brakes on another at Walker’s Automotive, where he was an intern last year.
“I was the one who was always taking things apart and trying to put them back together better,” said Lash, 18, of Hammonton.
In school, he learned the fundamentals of working as an auto technician. But the experience he gained in the internship was far more valuable, he said.
“In a typical day, I might work on 10 cars. In school, you might see 10 cars all year,” he said.
Lash is aspiring to the skill set of Jay Mastalski Jr., a 10-year veteran at Walker’s who also graduated from the technical school’s program.
Mastalski, 29, of Egg Harbor Township, said he has to keep training.
“I mean, a patient’s heart is always in the same place,” he said. “Cars change every year.”
His field is becoming increasingly technical. After graduating in 2002, he earned an associate’s degree from the Universal Technical Institute in Chicago. But on-the-job training was essential, he said.
“Nothing can truly prepare you for the real world like the job,” Mastalski said. “They can’t duplicate this in a classroom.”
Glass to gold
For generations, companies in Cumberland County have relied on skilled workers to make all manner of scientific and medical glass.
Most companies offer their own in-house apprenticeships. But since 1959, many glassblowers have received formal training at Salem Community College in Carneys Point Township.
Students who want to pursue a career in glass making can pursue an associate’s degree in applied science from the school.
This specialized glass training predates even the founding of the college, when the mechanics and fundamentals of glassblowing were taught at the former Salem County Technical Institute, spokesman Bill Clark said.
“It has consistently been very popular,” he said. “The scientific glassblowers create glass apparatus for scientific research in laboratories, universities and industry.”
The school has deep ties to the glass industry. The chairman of its scientific-glass instruction, Dennis Briening, was a glass technologist for 26 years at the Hercules Research Center in Wilmington, Del. Briening graduated from Salem’s glass program in 1977.
“It’s a very close association. He is in constant communication with industry,” Clark said.
Students in Cumberland County have not let a shrinking manufacturing base discourage them. Prospects remain strong for these skilled workers, Clark said.
“Our research shows that in the last three years, nearly 100 percent of our scientific glass technology graduates were employed in their field in six months,” Clark said. “Our graduates also work throughout the nation and abroad. They’re in demand across the country as well as overseas.”
The program remains very popular, Clark said.
“It’s a growing field. Our program has seen increased enrollment. We plan to offer two sections in the fall semester,” he said.
“It’s a good trade,” said Doug Grady, director of sales and marketing at Wilmad LabGlass in Vineland. The company makes thousands of glass products for scientific and medical use.
Having a trained work force is critical for South Jersey’s glass industry, he said. It’s one of the big reasons the state still has a glass industry despite global cutbacks and efficiencies in the industry.
One of Wilmad’s specialties is manufacturing custom-made scientific equipment, including glass equipment used on the old space shuttle.
But this fine detail requires skills that far exceed most entry-level glass workers, Grady said.
“To do the more challenging things, you need skilled workers. They don’t exist in the foreign labor markets,” he said. “It took many years to get these skills developed in the United States. It takes years to get someone who is good at this. It’s critical to provide a labor pool that can make sure there is enough capacity to move forward.”
The most highly skilled glassblowers at South Jersey factories can make salaries of $60,000 per year, Grady said.
“That’s a pretty good way to make a living,” he said.
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