NORTHFIELD — By the time Claire Sebastian was in eighth grade, she knew that she wanted to go into medicine.

Now, the 17-year-old from Egg Harbor Township is gaining actual work experience as part of a structured learning experience through her high school.

State law allows for structured learning experiences (SLE) for students who are 16 years or older to gain real-life career skills as part of their school day.

“The goal of a structured learning experience is to enhance what students learn in the classroom and the career and technical education (CTE) program setting by enabling them to put their skills into practice in the real world,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

The state of New Jersey has been promoting career-focused student training for several years as 53 percent of the state’s labor market is made up of jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree but only 37 percent of workers are qualified.

Earlier this week, voters in the state approved a $500 million bond referendum of which the majority would be used to expand county vocational schools.

Savage said there has always been a recognition of the importance of CTE programs, but the economic need is now more apparent than ever.

“We have employers who are talking about a very serious skills gap and not being able to find the talent they need,” she said.

State-approved CTE programs are not limited to vocational schools and are available at many public high schools throughout the state. According to data from Advance CTE, there are 80,460 students in the state enrolled in CTE programs in New Jersey.

Gina DeMaio, the apprenticeship and SLE coordinator at Atlantic County Institute of Technology (ACIT), said there are currently 45 students at ACIT participating in an SLE and next semester there are 60 signed up to participate.

DeMaio said the experiences are each different and meet the needs of the individual student, ranging from paid internships to job-shadow days to pre-apprenticeship programs.

“We provide that opportunity for students to explore different career paths and interests,” she said.

Sebastian spends her mornings at ACIT and some afternoons training as a dental assistant at Eastern Dental in Northfield.

“I feel like I did gain what I set out to learn,” she said. “I can see what a treatment plan is, how insurance works.”

Sebastian, who had spent the early part of her life dealing with serious medical conditions — a liver transplant as a baby and cancer when she was in second grade — said that when she got to ACIT she gravitated toward the dental program.

“The further in depth we got into it, the more I realized it’s something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life,” she said.

She said she has gained valuable experience through the SLE that will help her achieve her goal of one day becoming a dentist.

“You can’t really put a price on what ACIT provides in terms of teaching you how to be your best in your career field,” she said.

Sebastian’s classmate Alexis “Lexi” Clouser is also working at Eastern Dental while she is studying to become a medical assistant. Clouser, 17, of Mays Landing, plans to enlist in the U.S. Army and study to become a licensed practical nurse once she graduates high school.

She said working in an actual medical setting has given her a lot of confidence

“We do all these things in class and I’m like, ‘OK, I can do this now, but what about in the real world?’” she said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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