New Jersey is making a new push to ensure businesses here have the skilled workers they need to grow, under a new jobs initiative that involves several different areas of state government.
The effort, dubbed “Jobs NJ” by Gov. Phil Murphy, sets lofty goals for increasing the graduation rates of college students and those attending other job-training programs. Another focus is improving the job outlook for adults by encouraging more to enroll in programs that provide them with a training certificate or credential upon graduation.
It will also bring new attention to jobs that are in “high demand” in New Jersey and provide jobseekers with more information about the specific “pathways” they can take to qualify for those jobs.
The common thread of the wide-ranging initiative, Murphy said, is to strengthen the New Jersey economy by providing a better link between businesses and those who are looking to join the workforce.
NJTV News report on the governor’s pitch for the “Jobs NJ” program
“This is about training our workforce for jobs that are available and in demand, and then helping them connect with those jobs,” Murphy said during an event held on the campus of Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools in East Brunswick on Wednesday.
“It embraces the notion that talent is one of the key core drivers of our economic growth,” Murphy said.
The jobs initiative won immediate praise from leading business groups that for years have been trying to bring attention to the need for better job training and workforce development programs in New Jersey. But business leaders also cautioned that more needs to be done in other areas as well, including tax reform.
Call for comprehensive strategy
“The comprehensive strategy and comprehensive agenda is we need reform and job creation at the same time,” said Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
By many measures, the New Jersey economy is on solid ground at the start of a new decade, with an unemployment rate of 3.4% as of November. That’s besting the national rate of 3.5%. Growth in gross domestic product during the third quarter of 2019 was 2.3% for the state, outpacing the national growth rate of 2.1%.
During his annual State of the State address in Trenton on Tuesday, Murphy, a first-term Democrat, also highlighted more than 70,000 private sector jobs that have been added in the state since he took office in early 2018.
“Wages are increasing. More people are entering our workforce. This is all good news,” the governor told lawmakers during a joint session of the Legislature.
But during Wednesday’s event in East Brunswick, Murphy suggested now is not the time for policymakers to sit back and admire the state’s recent economic success. Instead, he said they must redouble efforts to advance hiring and job training goals, particularly for minorities and other “targeted populations.” They include people with disabilities, ex-offenders, immigrants and veterans.
“Our goal is to see New Jersey dominate this new decade,” Murphy said.
To that end, the “Jobs NJ” initiative is bringing together officials from the departments of Education and Labor and Workforce Development, as well as the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. Also playing a role are the state Economic Development Authority and the Jobs and Economic Opportunity Council, a group Murphy assembled shortly after taking office two years ago to study economic issues.
Ambitions for education
Murphy has set lofty goals for the jobs initiative in several areas. For example, he wants to increase the percentage of the population that has a postsecondary education credential in all 21 counties of the state by 2025. Increasing the number of employed women and minorities by 42,000 by 2025, and ensuring at least 25,000 adults secure a skills credential by 2025, are among the other goals for the initiative.
As part of the effort to better link the needs of employers with those of the workforce, the state will also begin generating a “high-demand” jobs report. And it will begin offering special recognition to companies that are adopting exemplary hiring and career development practices. No examples were provided.
“This is an approach that is very different from the way we’ve done things in the past,” Murphy said. “We’re changing the recipe.”
While not mentioned at all during Wednesday’s event, the rollout of the jobs initiative comes as Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders remain locked in a long-standing stalemate over what to do about major corporate tax-incentive programs that expired last summer.
The incentives had been used to lure companies to New Jersey, or to keep them from leaving, by offering tax breaks to help offset the state’s high corporate taxes. But Murphy has been a loud critic of how the incentives were administered during the eight-year tenure of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, his immediate predecessor, saying they were prone to abuse. Murphy has also introduced a series of sweeping reforms, but they have yet to be embraced by lawmakers and remain stalled in the Legislature.
During hearings held over the summer on the tax-incentive issue, a number of leading national policy experts told lawmakers that states tend to focus too much on providing companies with tax breaks even though most business leaders say finding a skilled workforce is at the top of their list of concerns.
Workforce development is a big issue
Murphy seemed to echo that sentiment during Wednesday’s event, saying the first question he’s asked by business leaders who are looking at New Jersey is always about the availability of skilled labor.
“’Do you have the workforce of tomorrow that we’re going to need?’” Murphy said they ask him.
Following the event, Tom Bracken, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, praised the new focus on workforce development, saying it is “one of the biggest issues facing businesses today.”
“The problem we’ve always had is how do we get somebody to step up and take a leadership role to bring all of it together,” Bracken said. “This sounds like exactly what ‘Jobs NJ’ is all about, and I think it’s a great step forward.”
Siekerka, the NJBIA leader, said the governor’s new initiative touches on a number of job-training issues that her organization has been focusing on in recent years as part of a broader push to keep the best talent from leaving the state. But Siekerka also said policymakers can’t lose sight of the other issues that businesses are concerned about, including high taxes and the constraints posed by the state’s perennial structural budget problems, like chronic underfunding of the public-employee pension system.
“We cannot tax our way out of (the budget problems), nor can we fund new programs with new revenue,” Siekerka said. “We’re already strapped.”