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On behalf of our 20,000 member companies, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) would like to express our appreciation for the opportunity to submit comments before the New Jersey State Board of Education regarding their strategic plan.

As the premier business advocacy organization in the state, we take great pride in helping create a highly educated, highly skilled workforce for our employers and the state of New Jersey. We are committed to bridging the existing skills gap, strengthening New Jersey’s workforce pipeline and ensuring students are ready for the world of work when the time comes. We continue to work with workforce trainers, educators and state government to develop some of the best training programs in the state, while also helping shape tomorrow’s workforce.

There are three areas NJBIA and its members have a great interest in driving the conversation, to ensure New Jersey’s education system continues to produce the highly educated, highly skilled workforce, the business community needs.

  • Students need to have the employability skills, often referred to as the 21st Century and career readiness skills, to succeed in the workplace and excel in life
  • Career and technical education, along with guided pathways , should be expanded to support a relevant , hands-on learning to support all students
  • Finally, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), New Jersey will have the opportunity to improve its state designed accountability system

Employability Skills

Social skills, often called “employability skills,” refer to a cluster of personal qualities, habits and attitudes that make someone a good employee. While New Jersey already boasts a highly educated workforce, job seekers still need the employability skills necessary for a lasting and meaningful employment.

The definition of the skills gap has evolved from being so heavily focused on technical and computer skills to “employability skills” related to communication and creativity. This new talent gap refers to an absence of attributes that are necessary for blue-collar workers and CEOs alike. Educational institutions may overlook these elements in today’s digital age, but schools must integrate both hard and employability skill sets into their curriculums, which in turn will help better prepare candidates and strengthen our country’s workforce.

Although hard skills are necessary for most jobs, employability skills frequently make the difference in the hiring process. According to the NJBIA 2016 Business Outlook Survey, employers found that new, entry level employees lack the employability skills necessary to become successful.

The NJBIA survey found:

  •   73 percent of the entry-level workers had either fair or poor written communication skills
  •   71 percent had either fair or poor critical thinking skills
  •   71 percent had either fair or poor time management skills
  •   70 percent had either fair or poor self-motivation
  •   64 percent had either fair or poor verbal communications skills
  •   62 percent had either fair or poor punctuality
  •   58 percent had either a fair or poor attitude and workforce ethic (1)

A survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), among other national surveys, would agree. Employers are struggling to find applicants with strong employability skills and are making it a priority in their interview process. The NACE survey found that employers are looking for candidates who have strong communication skills, who can work well in groups and can make decisions as well as solve problems. In addition, the survey highlighted that employers often consider some employability skills more important than the actual hard skills required for employment.

While our state recently updated its career readiness standards and practices, New Jersey school districts can be more responsive to the labor market by enlisting the employer community as a lead partner. Similar to how New Jersey workforce training programs have become more responsive to employer needs, educators could offer more education programs that warrant continued development and investment from employers. This could include working with employers to connect students with mentors, workplace site visits and developing a suite of authentic work-based learning experiences so that schools can align career preparation with the specific needs of business and industry. Likewise, New Jersey could establish a structured process through which the education and business sectors come together to establish priorities and design pathways.

Career and Technical Education (CTE)

New Jersey’s secondary schools must provide students with the knowledge, skills and experiences that will enable them to lead productive and fulfilling lives. In today’s economy, being “well prepared” means continuing education or training beyond high school. While New Jersey adopted more challenging K-12 standards, we still need to work to ensure educational experiences are both rigorous as well as relevant, just as we are preparing students for college as well as careers.

For too long, the current theory of education has emphasized a four-year college degree as the best pathway to success. But data shows that many students have difficulty completing a degree in four years, if at all. And many who do complete their degree programs graduate without a clear career focus, or a plan to achieve their career goals.

In New Jersey, public and independent four-year institutions outperform the national average with a 65 percent graduation rate, but still one in three students fails to earn a degree. New Jersey’s emphasis on preparing all students for four-year college – and the failure of thousands of well-intentioned students to complete a degree — ignores the reality that many well-paying career pathways can be launched with an industry certificate or an associate’s degree. However these career options and academic pathways are absence from the student-parent-educator conversation.

Additionally, CTE programs are not a path away from college. Students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers and often outperform them. In fact, study after study shows that these students graduate from high school at higher rates, provide the greatest boost to low-income students, perform better in college and have better chances for employment after high school. (2)

While every high school can offer CTE programs, New Jersey’s 21 county vocational-technical school districts have provided the kinds of employer-driven CTE programs that integrate rigorous academic content and technical skills to prepare students for college and careers, not just for a specific job. And newer programs — like health sciences, engineering, business and finance, and information technology — challenge and engage students, enabling them to identify career options and plan postsecondary studies with a clear focus and direction. Many of these are linked to postsecondary programs, offering college-level courses during high school that enable students to graduate with college credits and industry-approved credentials.

Students flock to CTE programs because these classes put academic knowledge into a real-world context and help them identify career interests. By expanding and replicating these programs, New Jersey will be able to provide more career-focused pathways for students in every high school.

Additionally, educators and policymakers could raise the threshold for quality career pathways in secondary schools. New Jersey offers career and technical education programs offering students the technical and employability skills, but this could be expanded to all students and become more rigorous. Spanning secondary and postsecondary levels, programs could combine rigorous academics, making them every bit as rigorous as the traditional “college-prep” track.

By strengthening student support and career guidance, New Jersey could also better educate students and parents on the possible opportunities CTE creates. Through additional capacity, educators could more effectively engage students in applied curriculum as well as offer work- based learning opportunities through deeper engagement with business and industry. Schools could introduce CTE beginning in middle school as well as develop programming within pathways that culminate with a postsecondary degree or industry recognized credential.

Finally, New Jersey should encourage school districts to increase their use of Option 2 so that more students will be able to demonstrate course proficiency rather than fulfilling seat time. This will enhance the ability of schools to embrace online learning, new technologies, work- based learning, and dual credit opportunities, as well as other 21st Century approaches that offer more flexible learning experiences. The existing Option 2 regulations provide the necessary mechanism for districts to create more innovative options for talented, career-focused students. The enhancement and development of Option 2 should be included in the Board’s strategic plan as a key strategy for addressing career readiness and expanding the types of relevant, engaging learning options available to New Jersey students.

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), returning power back to the states for the creation of their own education accountability system. New Jersey now has a tremendous opportunity to involve a diverse group of business and community leaders in the development of ambitious goals and metrics that reflect our population.

Over the next two years, New Jersey, with the help of the business community, will have the opportunity to evaluate and improve the state’s designed accountability system. We hope the Board and New Jersey will set long-term goals, thoughtful academic indicators, continued high standards, effective use of data and action plans for struggling districts. With that said, we offer five basic principles to keep in mind:

  • High Expectations: College and career ready state standards, annual assessments aligned to those standards and a rigorous benchmark for proficiency on the assessments
  • Clear and Ambitious Statewide Goals Focused on Boosting Students Achievement and Closing Achievement Gaps: These goals need to be established at a minimum in reading and math assessment results as well as graduation rates
  • Accessible and Disaggregated Data: School and district performance results, disaggregated by socioeconomic factors and learning needs, that are publically reported in a clear and transparent way.
  • Evidence-based Intervention Plan: State requires proven and effective interventions and appropriate consequences for schools that are not meeting their goals

New Jersey could align its funding and education accountability system to prioritize pathways that focus on high-demand, high-skill industries and phase out programs that no longer lead to meaningful credentials and careers. What is measured gets valued by schools, so it is critical to have an accountability system that signals priorities and drives resources that emphasize readiness for both college and careers.

Making career readiness count as a measure of student achievement is a key step forward in demonstrating that a clear focus on preparation for the world of work is the ultimate goal of public education. Currently, 34 states publicly report career-focused indicators in their accountability system, up from 29 in 2014.

New Jersey has taken some initial steps toward including career readiness indicators in the School Performance Reports, but finding ways to measure and value career readiness has not been part of the equation in the past and it is not a simple task. This is an evolving area nationally and we are happy to provide insight to the State Board for their strategic plan.

While we have recently begun to measure dual enrollment and the enrollment of a career and technical education program, like many other states, there are several other indicators states are using. According to Achieve and Advance CTE:

  • Georgia, Connecticut and South Carolina report a student’s involvement in an experiential learning or work based learning program, New Jersey only reports on structured learning
  • Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia report on the number of students earning an industry recognized credential or certificate3

Additionally with the development of a statewide longitudinal data system, New Jersey could accurately report on:

  • Placement and enrollment of students after high school graduation like Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Wisconsin, as New Jersey presently only offers self- reported data
  • The amount of high school graduates who receive postsecondary remediation like Alabama, Delaware and Michigan (4)

As the world’s labor market evolves, New Jersey employers continue to demand a skilled workforce. The above recommendations cannot only help make a student ready for the world of work, but prepare individuals for college as well as life. We applaud the State Board of Education for taking a proactive role in shaping our students’ futures and we look forward to the state plan.

(1) New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “2016 Business Outlook Survey.” 2015.

(2) Shaun M. Dougherty. “Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute. 2016.

(3) Achieve and Advance CTE. “How States are Making Career Readiness Count: A 2016 Update.” 2016.

(4) Ibid.

TO: Board President Mark Biedron and the State Board of Education

FR: Tyler Seville, Director of Technology & Workforce Development

DATE: May 10, 2016

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