As many readers know, in 2013, under the leadership of County Executive Dennis Levinson, Atlantic County took the first steps in diversifying the county economy. The goal was to move away from an economy solely dependent on casino gambling. The revitalized economy would utilize all of the county’s inherent assets from agriculture and life sciences in the west, to the Atlantic City Airport and FAA Tech Center in the center, to its great beaches and boardwalk along the shore.
We have had our successes. Teligent, a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Buena Vista Township, expanded and added jobs. The first building of the National Aviation Research and Technology Park has been built and fully occupied. Atlantic City has become a destination for e-gaming and has attracted technology support companies as a result. Meanwhile, Ørsted, a Danish company, will be building off-shore windmills, which will bring jobs and reduce our carbon footprint.
During the process, we learned two important lessons. The first is that our current educational system has not produced the high-tech workforce we so desperately need. Our countywide economic development strategic plan identified job training as a major gap.
The second lesson is that economic development works best when we work together. We have worked with federal and state agencies, our towns and cities, other counties, and strategic partners such as Joint Base Lakehurst-McGuire-Dix and Cape May County’s Drone Testing Center. We take seriously Benjamin Franklin’s warning to the Continental Congress that “we must indeed, hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
We have applied this spirit of unity to improving our workforce through education. We have developed relationships with district superintendents and are assisting them in aligning their curriculum to meet the economic needs of the county. We have worked to expand building and trades training in several high schools. We are developing an aviation mechanics academy at the Atlantic City Airport to attract airplane maintenance companies and the jobs they bring. We are working with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) to bring aviation courses, certifications and college credits to high school students in multiple districts.
Another workforce development opportunity now presents itself. The state is offering to fund 75% of an enrollment expansion of the Atlantic County Institute of Technology (ACIT) through the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act. ACIT currently offers career training and college prep in a variety of fields from culinary arts to health care. ACIT is also the first Atlantic County high school to implement the ERAU aviation STEM curriculum program. ACIT is a US News & World Report Best High School and a National Blue Ribbon School that has demonstrated positive results, including student acceptances to some of the most prestigious universities.
This expansion is worthy of public support. It increases opportunities for students and helps address the current skills gap. We cannot allow parochialism, blame-game politics and zero-sum thinking to become an obstacle to growing the county economy. Therefore, let’s move forward together on the ACIT expansion and build a stronger Atlantic County.
Joseph Ingemi, of Hammonton, is secretary of the board of trustees of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance.