“I just think COVID has changed people in ways that will take us a while to figure out,” New Jersey Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Robert Asaro-Angelo said during a recent interview with NJBIZ. The assessment follows another strong jobs report in April, in which the state recorded job growth for the 17th straight month with more than 95% of those pandemic job losses recovered. This assessment also came in response to a question about the biggest challenges facing the state’s workforce moving forward in 2022.
While the pandemic has created a new normal in many ways, the commissioner explained that current working conditions reflect what was happening in New Jersey in the months before COVID-19 arrived. Asaro-Angelo said before the pandemic, his department had all industries looking for 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, kind of, back on track.”
But it’s certainly been a long and difficult journey to get there, with this latest jobs report dropping New Jersey’s unemployment rate to 4.1%, down from 5.1% in January and down from 15, 5% at the height of the pandemic in April 2020. The current national average is 3.6%.
The sheer volume of these claims has strained New Jersey’s already fragile and outdated systems, causing delays and backlogs that the commissioner has come under fire for during the pandemic and, more recently, during budget hearings in the US. state in Trenton. Asaro-Angelo strongly defended the work of his staff while explaining that the combination of volume and federal programs made it a whole different kind of challenge.
“We are used to dealing with New Jersey residents who are in difficult situations,” Asaro-Angelo said. “It was just the volume that was so. But throughout this, our people have had their heads down from day one. It wasn’t just the volume of what we’re used to doing. That was volume plus a ton of new federal programs that we had to implement.
He said, however, there were many lessons learned and stressed that every decision his ministry makes touches the lives of many people.
“You’re talking about 2.5 million claimants that every decision you make affects tens or hundreds of thousands of people at once,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We repeat this mantra all the time. What’s going to get the most people getting paid, getting the most benefits, in the shortest amount of time, and making those decisions based on that? »
The loosening of the volume allowed efforts to modernize the state’s much-maligned unemployment system to gain momentum, which Asaro-Angelo said began with an effort to change the way the department speaks to people. customers and applicants. It starts with a streamlined application process that’s easier to understand and complete, and a new, more visually pleasing layout.
“It’s not just about looking better,” Asaro-Angelo said. “It’s about having that nice look and easier questions that impact someone’s claims to get them to determine their eligibility faster.”
The commissioner said his views were informed by his experience working with the U.S. Department of Labor during Super Hurricane Sandy, and how the last thing people want to do in an emergency is read a long and confusing for a government program.
The department has tested this new application and the commissioner has indicated that he is ready to use it fully. In fact, New Jersey was chosen by the US Department of Labor and the US Digital Service as one of only two states – along with Arkansas – to modernize the unemployment insurance process for the entire country. The commissioner said he was especially proud of the honor and believed that in a few years, efforts here in New Jersey to modernize would not only help service in the state, but also lay the foundation for a new unemployment insurance 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 working affects physical operations, early retirements, recovering public sector jobs lost during the pandemic and just trying to connect New Jerseyans with companies that are hiring.
Asaro-Angelo touted the success and usefulness of one-stop centers, which have served hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans during the pandemic.
“When there are so many jobs out there, it’s more about connecting our people who were in One-Stops with employers,” Asaro-Angelo said. “And I think they’ve done a really good job across the state. Each one-stop-shop has a sales rep who is responsible for making that connection, like a Match.com kind of thing.
Another area of focus has been promoting apprenticeship programs, which the commissioner said have been eclipsed during COVID. He said the state offers a number of programs in several different industries, which aren’t just about “blue-collar work.”
“And I really think it’s the benchmark for workplace learning to attract and retain employees,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We saw during COVID people who were in apprenticeship programs. People who had that kind of connection, that trust and that faith in their employer who had invested in them. They are the ones who have kept their jobs and they are the ones who have been quicker to return to their jobs.
Millions of dollars in new grants have been released for more apprenticeship programs, which was highlighted at the recent East Coast Apprenticeship Conference in Atlantic City. The goal is to continue to build a talent pool across the state. The emerging offshore wind industry is an area of great excitement. NJBIZ has previously reported on the rapid growth of the industry.
Asaro-Angelo said that just a few years ago the plans almost looked like a cakewalk, but now there’s a lot of activity, a lot of construction and a lot of hiring. “Government, it’s extremely rewarding and exciting to be able to help foster these new industries, to train the workforce,” Asaro-Angelo explained. “We knew we had to have a whole professional training ecosystem around this.”
A recent job fair in Atlantic City with several employers talking to students about the training they will need reflected the reality and excitement of building an industry from the ground up in New Jersey.
But Asaro-Angelo stressed that it’s not just new industries, such as offshore wind, that are looking for workers, it’s almost every industry at this point. “We’re just trying to do everything we can to build that pipeline to connect workers to those jobs,” he said.
“It really is a labor market, whether it’s salary or benefits. But, more importantly, I think we are now seeing flexible working and flexibility, in general, is something that employers need to adapt to. And, by the way, this also means us as a state.