By Deanna C. Santo
Union officials, Chambers of Commerce and representatives from education and business gathered at the Business and Corporate Center of Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC) on May 12 for the first of what will be an annual event focusing on education and workforce development. The conference focused on workforce development needed to succeed in a rapidly changing, globalized regional economy.
Dr. Frederick Keating, RCGC’s President, pointed out that county community colleges are critical to workforce development , especially in meeting the needs of labor.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney echoed Keating’s sentiments saying that “county colleges are underutilized and probably one of our greatest assets.” He predicted that community colleges’ role will be crucial to help fill vacant jobs in the region, which he estimated to be about 40,000 currently.
Sweeney emphasized the need for all sectors to work together and expressed how pleased he was to see Chambers from Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties collaborating.
For labor unions, the conference served as community outreach to encourage the local business community to consider the advantages of using skilled local labor. Union organizations also hope to encourage those providing career guidance to present alternatives to pursuing a four-year university degree to high school graduates.
A major focus throughout the morning was on recognizing the benefits of entering the trades for high school students for whom a four-year degree might not be an appropriate fit. Conference participants acknowledged that society has progressively shied away from encouraging entry into careers that involve manual labor, instead focusing on funneling high school graduates into universities where they can get a “well-rounded” education. The focus of the conference was not to devalue degrees offered by universities but rather to encourage a shift in how society views skilled labor professions.
The advantages, participants agreed, are that labor unions offer training opportunities, a secure working environment, and desirable healthcare benefits. Consequently, union members are able to earn a livable wage working in a safe environment, and never lack for healthcare.
Cross-sector partnerships, usually in the form of internships and apprenticeships, provide on-the-job training supported by classroom experience. This has proven to be an effective pathway for establishing a career, but lack of program awareness continues to be a problem.
Bob Schiavinato, Director of the NJ Build Apprenticeship Readiness Program and President of AFL-CIO of Southern New Jersey Central Labor Council, participated on the panel for Career Pathing, Internships, & Apprenticeships.
Schiavinato provides readiness programs through a number of entities in the City of Camden. Over the course of 10 to 16 weeks, program participants learn, practice, and apply hard skills like construction math and soft skills with a particular emphasis on punctuality. Schiavinato stressed how important the soft skills are in construction, a field in which every minute counts and laborers must account for the time required to prepare for their day’s work (e.g. laying out tools) versus simply showing up on time. In construction, said Schiavinato, showing up 15 minutes early is the equivalent of being a half hour late. Shared knowledge like this helps apprentices develop soft skills that will not only land them a job, but also help them keep their job.
The NJ Build Program partners with construction and labor unions throughout the region. The purpose is to help individuals in the program choose a trade that they enjoy and can flourish in, while also knowing that they will earn a living wage and competitive benefits.
Serving as the Director of the NJ Build Apprenticeship Readiness program is only one of the many hats Schiavinato wears. A trained musician with an appreciation for the arts and a commitment to social justice, Schiavinato has been able to utilize the program to “level the playing field” for career opportunities in the City of Camden.
Congressman Donald Norcross, an electrician who rose through union ranks before taking public office, said in his keynote address that “the best social program that we’ve ever had is making sure there’s a job. For those assisting our citizens on their journey to employment, be it youth entering the workforce or an individual re-entering with a new goal and vision of their future career, there is a duty that must be honored, a responsibility taken with great seriousness, to ensure that the guidance they provide directs employment seekers into professions where there is a need.”
The City of Camden is undergoing $2.5 billion in construction work today, said Norcross, a feat the Congressman attributes to “working together.” Between successes like these, effective promotion and recruitment of influential corporate entities to Camden, and the growth of major sectors in energy, Congressman Norcross’s wish is that all will be able to retire with dignity.