Scents permeate the hallways: peanut butter cupcakes and cinnamon rolls from a culinary arts class, fresh sawdust from a carpentry class, and the burning sparks from welding rods from a automotive lessons – sights and smells as old as traditional work experience.
But mainstream work experience these days could also incorporate interactive anatomy tables to manage medical treatments for gunshot wounds or ectopic pregnancies. They may include courses in robotics, cybersecurity, aviation, and advanced manufacturing.
“The message is getting out,” said Michael Dicken, superintendent of the Gloucester County Institute of Technology, where students can earn up to 30 college credits by the time they graduate from 12 full-time programs. At the sprawling Deptford campus, the Vocational and Technical High School serves around 1,600 students, mostly from across the county. Places are highly competitive, with approximately 1,200 applications per year for 400 places.
“Whether you want to be a hairdresser or a doctor,” he said, “students come here to pursue all career options. Our goal is to get students into work or college.
Once seen as an option primarily for students wishing to pursue skilled trades, vocational schools attract students who wish to pursue a different path to college or careers. The trend is expected to continue amid demand for skilled workers, experts said.
More than 35,000 students are currently enrolled in New Jersey County’s 21 vocational schools. More than 5,000 more are expected to enroll after schools begin receiving additional funding this summer as part of a $275 million state bond to expand job training programs.
“Demand far exceeds capacity,” said Jackie Burke, executive director of the NJ Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. About 13,000 of the nearly 30,000 who apply statewide are accepted. Similar increases are happening nationwide.
In a wing of the 375,000 square foot building in Gloucester, a group of Grade 10 students work on robotics and a year-long project for the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge, an annual competition for high school students to build and fly human-powered crashed vehicles on lunar terrain simulations. A sign on the wall has a quote from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
“I just feel like it was a good opportunity,” said Victoria Sweeney, 16, of Woodbury, an aspiring architectural engineer. “We are learning a lot.”
Deneen Clark, 42, a former restaurateur turned teacher in 2014, oversees a bakery kitchen where a group of sophomores wearing white jackets and chef hats work at stations filling raspberry cookies or making heart-shaped donuts. There are also three commercial kitchens.
“They get a lot of hands-on experience,” said Clark, a baking and pastry teacher who teaches in another wing in Gloucester. “I tell the kids, ‘I hope you find a job like mine.’ I look forward to working every day.
At the Camden County Technical School District, approximately 2,200 students study in more than 30 programs at its Gloucester Township and Pennsauken campuses. Enrollment has increased by more than 200 students over the past five years, Superintendent Patricia Fitzgerald said.
Elsewhere in the region, the Burlington County Institute of Technology, which has about 2,215 students in Westampton and Medford, has seen enrollment increase from about 1,986 students a decade ago, Superintendent Christopher Nagy said. Each year, approximately 1,000 students apply for the 625 places available.
“There’s such a demand for them that we’re not able to get these students out fast enough,” Nagy said.
Burke said enrollment in the state has jumped 41% since 2000 as vocational school curricula include a wider range of disciplines, with the most popular choices being health sciences, especially since the pandemic; construction and technical trades; visual arts and digital media; culinary arts; and engineering.
“They learn an employable skill while they’re in high school,” Fitzgerald said.
The schools boast a 98% graduation rate, compared to 90% for traditional New Jersey public high schools. In 2019, 72% of graduates went on to college or post-secondary training, according to the latest available statistics.
Most of the teachers are experienced in their fields, including Clark and his colleague Kevin Heck, a mechanical engineer and former control room operator at the Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Salem County. Many have had to obtain teaching certifications through an alternative route, an expensive process to demonstrate mastery of their subject.
“I love being able to teach students,” said Heck, 42. “It’s really a step ahead.”
Alden Rowlyk, 16, of Swedesboro, a Gloucester County School junior who is interested in mechanical engineering, said he chose vocational school over his home district because of the opportunity to learn from experts.
“It was my first choice. Better to learn from the pros,” Rowlyk said.
Some students say they chose the educational and technical program to start college. Many are enrolled in dual degree programs and earn credit at schools like Rowan College in New Jersey, which adjoins the GCIT campus.
Dicken said the institute has few discipline issues, which he attributes to the students’ personal decision to attend the program. He estimates that about 3% end up transferring to their home school district.
Wearing work boots and tool belts, the carpentry students followed instructions from Stephen White, a building trades teacher in Gloucester, on how to build steps. Students earn credit toward union learning.
“They learn by doing,” said White, 38, who graduated from the program in 2002 and worked as a journeyman carpenter. “For the trade and this type of career, there is no better way to learn.
There are auto mechanic courses that teach students how to fix everything from high-end cars to electric cars. Students learn to repair damaged engines and vehicles.
Karli Kearney, 16, of Paulsboro, a sophomore, enrolled in the school intending to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a mechanic. She didn’t like it, so she tried welding and found her passion, which she plans to pursue with a union after graduation.
“A lot of guys don’t think women can do that,” she said. “It’s a chance to show them that we can.”