The Securing Our Children’s Future bond referendum asks New Jersey voters to make a critical investment in preparing young people for the technically skilled careers that will drive South Jersey’s economic growth.

As the superintendents of the county vocational-technical school districts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, we want voters to understand why funding for career and technical education (CTE) expansion in the ballot question is so important.

First, the bond funds will be used to build and equip state-of-the-art shops and labs that high school and adult students need to prepare for careers in industries critical for South Jersey’s economic growth, like manufacturing, health care technology, aviation, and construction.

Employers say they can’t find people with the technical skills to fill well-paying jobs they have available, and our county vocational schools want to address these needs with expanded programs in high-demand technical fields.

These career preparation facilities are very expensive to build and maintain, and the cost is far beyond the ability of any local school district without a significant increase in school taxes.

So it makes sense for counties to build these specialized shops and labs, in partnership with local industries and the county colleges, so that all interested adult and high school students can benefit from them.

Second, for so many high school students and young adults in the region, a four-year college degree right out of high school is not an option.

There are many well-paying career pathways that students can launch with the industry certifications attained at county vocational-technical school and the college credits earned towards two-year degree. Once employed, they can continue to pursue higher-level certifications and degrees — often paid for by the companies that hire them.

It’s a way for a young person to work his or her way to a professional, family-sustaining career — or even more — right here in this part of New Jersey.

Third, we see the transformational benefits of high school career programs for all types of young people. Students who spend part of each school day pursuing their passion — whether it’s culinary arts, welding, engineering, aviation, environmental science or performing arts — perform better because they understand how their academic courses relate to their career goals. And they get a valuable head start on their careers.

These programs do not interest every student, but for those with a clear career focus, it is a critical option that will give the diverse young people in our counties the opportunities they need to launch well-paying careers while providing a strong pipeline of skilled workers for regional industries.

Yes, the $500 million bond referendum would add to the state’s debt. But, this investment will provide a real economic return for this region and for New Jersey. The state has a serious skills gap, and employers cannot expand and prosper without a technically trained workforce to fill current vacancies and expected retirements.

Qualified young people who fill these jobs, and earn more as they progress in their careers, will pay greater income taxes. And if they have well-paying job opportunities, they will stay in South Jersey to raise their families, rather than look for better jobs elsewhere.

When companies see that New Jersey is actively encouraging a better-prepared workforce, they will be more interested in expansion, and other companies may have a greater interest in locating here, leading to more revenue from business taxes.

The Securing Our Children’s Future ballot question is a win-win-win for New Jersey residents, local employers and the state’s economy.

The commentary is signed by the following superintendents: Philip Guenther, of Brigantine, Atlantic County Institute of Technology; Nancy Hudanich, of Avalon, Cape May County Technical School District; Dina Rossi Elliott, of Millville, Cumberland County Technical Education Center; and William Hoey, of Point Pleasant, Ocean County Vocational-Technical School.

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