Answering the workforce call

Students collaborate at the new Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Center at County College of Morris. (CCM)

When Anthony J. Iacono took over as president of County College of Morris (CCM) five years ago, he inherited a strong academic transfer school for students moving from high school to four-year colleges — and a community asking for something more.

“We really listened to a lot of employers and community members,” Iacono said. “And what they said was, they liked what we did, but they really wanted us to open up a lot more programs for individuals to go right into the workforce and have meaningful careers that paid life-sustaining wages.”

Even in a pandemic, the New Jersey college has been able to respond to that call in dramatic ways.

Last December, with its campus still mostly shuttered due to Covid, CCM held a virtual “grand opening” for its $11 million Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Center. The new building provides advanced manufacturing training to students from high school on, as well as a two-year engineering curriculum for students planning to transfer to four-year colleges.

“The manufacturers said, ‘Look, if you can get a facility put together here, we will support it,’” Iacono said. “And it all came together.”

An opportunity to grow

Built with state, county and industry funding, the center has enabled CCM to expand into new areas like robotics and artificial intelligence. In one of many partnerships, high school students design and manufacture parts for lockers at NASA’s International Space Station.

Two additional construction projects are scheduled for completion in 2024. One is a $25 million Career Technical Education Center where as many as 500 high school students annually will have opportunities to earn industry credentials and college credits. The other is a $5.3 million building that will serve budding entrepreneurs and culinary science students.

“Morris has really embraced the role that they play in their economy, around manufacturing and technology in particular,” said Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges and a former state labor and workforce development commissioner.

The activity on the campus in Randolph, New Jersey, is the result of carefully crafted partnerships and a recognition among state and local leaders that community colleges are a crucial link in the effort to prepare students for the specialized jobs that a thriving economy demands.

For 50 years, CCM has served as a two-year link in one of the nation’s strongest academic pipelines. Morris County’s public and private schools serve many high-income households where students and parents are focused on admissions to competitive colleges. At least six of 10 adults in the county have a college degree, Iacono said.

But more recently, CCM has been reaching out to underserved students, many of whose families work in service-sector jobs and struggle to survive on relatively low salaries in a region with high taxes and cost-of-living expenses.

“We made a decision that we are going to make concerted efforts to attract students from lower-income areas and students who are first-generation in college,” Iacono said.

Building a foundation

That new direction was in sync with activity on the state level to ramp up career and technical education. 

In 2018, the state’s legislature asked voters to approve the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act. It sought to authorize the sale of up to $500 million worth of bonds, with $325 million of that amount to be used to expand career-training capacity at vocational-technical high schools and community colleges (which are mainly known as “county colleges” in New Jersey).

According to at least one study, New Jersey residents will bear the highest tax burden of any state over a lifetime. So additional public investment is a tough sell. Backers of the bond act pushed the message that the state’s economic future depended on educational opportunities that would equip young adults with the skills to get good-paying jobs soon out of high school.

“If we’re going to thrive as a state we need to have the most skilled workforce that we can possibly have,” Fichtner said.

The bond act passed with just more than 52% over the vote.

Working together

Its success came as a huge relief to Scott Moffitt, superintendent of the Morris County Vocational School District. For years, the district has been turning students away in droves, he said. For every student who gets admitted, three or four are refused for lack of space. Moffitt was eager to build a new facility, but he needed a place to put it.

That turned out to be the campus of CCM, which was also looking for a way to take advantage of the bond act opportunity.

“We have such a good relationship with our county vocational school district,” Iacono said. “So, rather than trying to do a school on our own, we thought: Why not just partner?”

The vocational district currently serves about 1,800 students, and the planned Career Technical Education Center will expand its capacity by almost a third. High school juniors and seniors will spend half a day at their home schools, and half a day at CCM. Career pathways will include manufacturing, engineering, criminal justice, healthcare and business.

More partners

CCM’s listening session also revealed an interest in entrepreneurship, and its leaders successfully sought bond act funds for a new Entrepreneurship and Culinary Science Center.

Along with expanding the college’s culinary program, the center will serve as a resource for students and community members who want to learn how to start and expand successful businesses. The Morris County Chamber of Commerce will act as a partner and recruit “entrepreneurs in residence” to work alongside CCM’s faculty.

“I think economic development organizations would behoove themselves to work closely with higher education in general and in particular community colleges,” said Meghan Hunscher, the chamber CEO.

CCM President Anthony J. Iacono speaks at a Morris County Board of County Commissioners event in August to unveil plans for a new CCM Entrepreneurship and Culinary Science Center. Also announced was an expansion of the county vocational school with a new Career Technical Education Center. (Photo: CCM)

The bond act requires county governments to come up with 25% of the funding for projects. Morris County also helped with the cost of the manufacturing and engineering center, giving county taxpayers a hefty share of investment at the college. 

“It’s not controversial,” said Stephen Shaw, director of the county board of commissioners. “I happen to be up for re-election this year and I am actually touting the investment in the college, and it’s getting a really good reception from the public.”

Besides the investment in young lives, people recognize the overall benefits of expanding career opportunities, said Shaw, who operates a construction business.

“That’s all you hear about right now, is the labor shortage,” he said. “These kids can get a great job right out of county college and there’s a demand for their skills.”

The best way to build goodwill is to listen, Iacono said.

“I just absolutely believe that if you’re going to be a great community college, you’ve got to serve the whole community,” he said. “We listened to our community tell us what they need. And then we asked them to work with us, and they did. And the results are very nice.”

About the Author

Barbara Shelly
is a higher education writer in Kansas City, Missouri.