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Businesses Worry that Too Many Millennials Headed Out of New Jersey

Millennials are leaving Garden State at a faster clip than any other group; that’s a concern for business groups, who want to keep them here

Michele Siekerka
Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, addresses conference on millennials and the state workforce.

Last year, the size of the nation’s millennial generation grew enough to top baby boomers and become the largest of the five living generations. But in New Jersey, business leaders are tracking a different trend as millennials have been leaving the state at a higher rate than other groups.

The loss of millennials is not only a waste of taxpayer investment in their K-12 education, but there are also concerns that it could be having a broader impact on a state economy that has taken several years to fully recover from the Great Recession.

That’s caused business leaders to begin talking about ways to keep New Jersey’s millennials from leaving the state in the first place, as well as doing things to attract millennials from other states as they launch their careers, and as more and more boomers here reach retirement age.

“It’s a challenge that is screaming out for some attention and some solutions,” said Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. The NJBIA hosted a daylong conference in East Windsor yesterday on the issue of millennials and the state workforce.

Born between 1982 and 1999

“Number one, they are our largest generation in the workforce now, and number two, they are our future workforce,” Siekerka said. “We have to be a leader on this issue because we have to ensure the workforce of tomorrow.”

Millennials as a group are generally defined as having been born between 1982 and 1999, and there are an estimated 70 million nationally. Their outlook has been shaped not only by the many advancements in technology that have occurred during their lifetime, but major events like the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Chuck Underwood, an expert on generational studies who served as the conference’s afternoon keynote speaker.

Millennials have also witnessed an era of hyper-partisanship in government and corporate greed in the business community. Still, Underwood said they remain optimistic and ambitious even as many are still living with their parents well into their 20s. And to retain and attract millennials, he suggested New Jersey and its businesses have to understand exactly how they think.

“You have to think big. You have to show off big when you’ve got your program right,” Underwood said. “You can’t do it quietly.”

Top issue: making communities affordable

During an earlier panel discussion on where millennials want to live, Brandon Russo, a recent Rowan University graduate who is now working in Philadelphia, said the top issue is making sure communities are affordable. Russo said he’s living in a walkable community in South Jersey that’s located on the PATCO high-speed line, and many of his classmates have chosen to live in Philadelphia, where they can generally get more for their rent money.

“I think affordability really is the main issue,” Russo said.

Daniela Velez, a recent Rowan College at Burlington County graduate who now works for NJBIA, said despite dreams of moving to New York City, she’s among the many New Jersey millennials still living at home. “Trying to buy the car, pay the insurance, pay the phone bill… it is nearly impossible to do it at 23 years old,” Velez said.

But some areas of the state have done well with millennials, who’ve shown a preference for walkable communities with mass-transit access like Hoboken and Jersey City instead of their parents’ suburbs. In Newark, Audible Inc. has been working to convince employees to move to the city, going so far as to hold a lottery for free apartments as part of a broader revitalization effort led by CEO Don Katz.

“For us, it’s really about bringing millennials further out into New Jersey,” said Colin Newman, Audible’s vice president of public policy and community affairs. “We’re seeing a lot of progress.”

Burden of property taxes

Once millennials are able to enter the New Jersey homebuying market, they often underestimate the challenge of paying the hefty property taxes on their new homes, not only in the first year, but also five years down the road after a series of inevitable increases, said Lee Holtzman, a lawyer with McCarter & English who specializes in property taxes.

“The hard truth is that New Jersey homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the entire country,” Holtzman said. “That’s the brutal reality.”

“Affordability in New Jersey is a huge issue,” he said.

Millennials, meanwhile, are also facing unprecedented college debt as tuition rates have risen while state aid for colleges and universities has largely remained flat. A recent report on student debt released by the Institute for College Access & Success found two-thirds of the class of 2015 in New Jersey left school with at least some level of student loans, ranking as the eighth-highest percentage in the nation. On average, the New Jersey students had $30,104 in loans from public and private four-year colleges, the country’s 11th highest amount.

‘…an absolute crisis’

“This is an absolute crisis,” said Holtzman, who called for more financial-literacy training, something state lawmakers have begun working to improve.

At the same time, the state has also been spending millions of dollars on building upgrades at state colleges and universities, an investment NJBIA officials hope will play a role in convincing more high-school graduates to remain in New Jersey. The organization estimates that taxpayers invest $19,000 on average each year on each K-12 student.

The importance of matching education programs with the job-training needs of the private sector was the topic of another panel discussion held yesterday. Afterward, Eva Skuka, dean of the Berkeley College’s School of Health Studies, cited statistics that show long-term patients are increasingly being taken care of in their homes instead of in traditional-care facilities. That means there’s a growing demand for trained home-health aides, she said.

“I think that most of the training has to be geared to really matching the industry’s needs,” Skuka said.

The conference was an encouraging event, Siekerka said, because it brought together leaders from the business and education communities. Her organization will be producing a series of white papers to further flesh out the issues that were up for discussion, she said. “We’re listening and we’re paying attention,” she said. “We have a sense of urgency.”

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