Marjorie Perry, MZM Construction & Management

As the woman owner of MZM Construction & Management in Newark, I know a thing or two about what it takes to meet expectations and realize success in work and in life.

I was accepted into the Harvard Business School Owner/President Management (OPM) 2-year program, where I am the only African American woman and one of only 23 women out of 167 participants. I applied to the program because I want to grow my business vertically and horizontally and to gain new knowledge on retaining the talent we need to go forward for the 21st century.

Given my professional experiences, one thing I know for sure is that education is critical, and that we must remain focused on equity of opportunity for all students so that they become the successful workers of the future. What we are seeking, but not seeing in the workplace, is a skilled labor force that will allow my business to produce high-quality products for my clients, sustain profitability, and stay relevant in an ever-changing business climate.

Although I want to be able to recruit locally, much of the talent for the construction field lack the requisite math skills to elevate them to become electricians, carpenters, or HVAC workers. They remain stuck at the laborer level, rather than advancing to higher skill and higher wage jobs. Lately, I feel like I am facing an uphill battle in sustaining a profitable business.

I’m not alone in confronting these issues. Recent workforce development studies from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation and New Jersey Business & Industry Association highlight many employers’ hiring challenges and the mismatch between supply and demand of ready employees.

Given how drastically curriculum and instruction can vary from district to district across our state, one of the only ways to understand how all students are performing when it comes to mastery of critical skills is through a strong state assessment. Tests aren’t popular, but they are a routine part of life in business, as employers both formally and informally asses employee skills and aptitude.

Right now, the New Jersey Department of Education is considering changes to our state assessments, including eliminating 10th grade exams and introducing a new 11th grade test. Frankly, this worries me. The system we currently have in place is based on our high state academic standards and has been implemented and improved upon for many years. More of our students have been steadily progressing to meet a higher bar, which has made me more optimistic about the future of our talent pool.

If we take away the opportunity to see how all students are doing at a critical point in high school and create an easier new test that may or may not be aligned with the rest of the system, we risk going backwards. The world is rapidly getting more complex, the challenges for each of us more complicated.

Thanks to my experience at Harvard, I’m gaining perspective on what is coming next at a global level – and it’s clear to me that there are opportunities out there to improve if we get out of our own way.   New Jersey’s education system now ranks first nationally, which should benefit our economy and encourage businesses to establish and expand here. However, preserving this distinction – and supporting economic growth and strong employment — will only come to be if more of our students are truly ready for work and if opportunities and achievement levels are not be pre-determined by a student’s circumstances at birth.

How do we do that? We stop putting politics over progress when it comes to preparing our citizens for the future. We avoid lowering expectations and ensure all students have opportunities to thrive on the pathway of their choice. We ensure our leaders hear many voices in the conversation about what our students and state need to thrive.

Let’s not rush into any new testing system that could jeopardize our future talent pool. Instead, let’s work together carefully and strategically to make sure New Jersey is number one for all our students and businesses.


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