“I just think COVID has changed people in ways that it’s going to take a while for us to figure out,” New Jersey Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said during a recent interview with NJBIZ. That assessment came on the heels of another strong jobs report in April, in which the state posted employment growth for the 17th consecutive month with more than 95% of those pandemic job losses recovered. That assessment also came in response to a question about the biggest challenges the state’s labor force faces moving forward in 2022.
While the pandemic has created a new normal in many ways, the commissioner explained that current labor conditions mirror what was happening in New Jersey in the months before COVID-19 hit. Asaro-Angelo said that before the pandemic, his department had every industry seeking help finding workers. Now, that dynamic is more pronounced.
“We had the same meetings and the same worries in 2019 and 2018,” Asaro-Angelo said. “So, in some ways we’re just, sort of, back on track.”
But it has certainly been a long and tough journey to get to this point, with that latest job report dropping the New Jersey unemployment rate to 4.1%, down from 5.1% in January, and down from 15.5% during the depth of the pandemic in April 2020. The current national average sits at 3.6%.
The volume of those claims placed a huge strain on New Jersey’s already fragile and outdated systems, which caused delays and backlogs that the commissioner came under fire for during the pandemic, and most recently, at state budget hearings in Trenton. Asaro-Angelo has steadfastly defended the work of his staff while explaining that the combination of volume and federal programs made it a whole different type of challenge.
“We’re used to dealing with New Jersey residents who are in dire situations,” said Asaro-Angelo. “It was just the volume that was so much. But throughout this, our folks have put their heads down from day one. It wasn’t just volume of what we’re used to doing. It was volume plus a ton of new federal programs we had to implement.”
He said, though, there were many lessons learned and pointed out that every decision his department makes touches many people’s lives.
“You’re talking about 2.5 million claimants that every decision you’re making is affecting tens or hundreds of thousands of people at a time,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We repeat this mantra all the time. What’s going to get the most people paid, the most benefit, in the shortest amount of time, and make those decisions based on that.”
The easing of the volume has allowed efforts to modernize the state’s much-maligned unemployment system to gain momentum, which Asaro-Angelo said has begun with an effort to change how the department is talking to customers and claimants. That starts with a streamlined application process that is easier to understand and complete, as well as a new, more visually pleasing layout.
“It’s not just about looking nicer,” Asaro-Angelo said. “It’s about having that nice look and easier questions having an impact on someone’s claims to make them get their eligibility determined quicker.”
The commissioner said his perspective is informed by his experience working with the U.S. Department of Labor during Superstorm Sandy, and how the last thing people want to do during an emergency is read a long, confusing application for a government program.
The department has been testing that new application and the commissioner indicated that they are ready to go full-bore with it. In fact, New Jersey was chosen by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Digital Service as one of only two states – along with Arkansas – to modernize the UI process for the whole nation. The commissioner said he is especially proud of that distinction and believes in a few years that the efforts here in New Jersey to modernize will not only help service in the state, but also lay the groundwork for a new UI infrastructure across the country.
The commissioner also detailed what he sees as other major challenges in 2022, including the unpredictability of COVID, how the rise of remote work affects brick-and-mortar operations, early retirements, recovering public sector jobs lost during the pandemic and simply trying to connect New Jerseyans with companies that are hiring.
Asaro-Angelo touted the success and usefulness of One-Stop Centers, which served hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans during the pandemic.
“When there’s so many jobs out there, it’s more about connecting our folks who were in the One-Stops with employers,” said Asaro-Angelo. “And I think they’ve done a really good job of that across the state. Every One-Stop has a business rep who is in charge of making that connection, like a Match.com kind of thing.”
Another area of emphasis has been promoting apprentice programs, which the commissioner believes got overshadowed during COVID. He said that the state offers a number of programs in several different industries, which are not only about “blue-collar work.”
“And I really think that’s the gold standard for work-based learning for how to attract and retain employees,” said Asaro-Angelo. “We saw during COVID folks that were in apprentice programs. Folks that had that kind of connection, that trust and faith in their employer who had invested in them. They were the ones who kept their jobs, and they were the ones who were quicker to return back to their jobs.”
Millions of dollars in new grants have been released for more apprenticeship programs, which were highlighted at the recent Eastern Seaboard Apprenticeship Conference in Atlantic City. The goal is to continue creating a talent pipeline throughout the state. One area where there is a lot of excitement is in the emerging offshore wind industry. NJBIZ has previously reported on the industry’s rapid growth.
Asaro-Angelo said that just a few years ago, the plans seemed almost like pie-in-the-sky, but now there is a lot of activity, a lot of construction, and a lot of hiring. “Governmentally, it’s extremely rewarding and it’s exciting to be able to help foster these new industries, train the workforce,” explained Asaro-Angelo. “We knew we’d have to have a whole ecosystem of job training around it.”
A recent job fair in Atlantic City with several employers talking to students about training they will need reflected the reality and excitement of growing an industry from the ground-up in New Jersey.
But Asaro-Angelo pointed out that it is not just the new industries, such as offshore wind, that are looking for workers, it is almost every industry at this point. “We’re just out there trying to do all we can to build that pipeline to connect workers with these jobs,” he said.
“It is really a worker’s market, whether that means salary or benefits. But, most importantly, I think we’re seeing now about flexible work and flexibility, in general, is something that employers need to adjust to. And, by the way, that means us as a state as well.”