When Covid-19 hit the world in 2020, Jennie O’Daniels was managing catering sales for the Teaneck Marriott, working on conferences, galas, trade shows and social events. But then everything changed about the industry she’d been employed in for more than 15 years.
“I loved the interactions with people, the creativity that every day is a new event,” O’Daniels, 47, recalls of her favorite parts of the job. “I was on my toes, there was never a dull moment, I never sat down—I was much skinnier back then, too,” she adds with a laugh.
When Governor Phil Murphy signed an unprecedented executive order in March 2020 directing New Jersey’s 9 million residents to stay home, the state’s schools and nonessential businesses to shut down, and employers to let their employees work from home if possible, O’Daniels and her colleagues worked remotely for a few weeks. Then, they were furloughed. Finally, in July, O’Daniels was laid off, and her nearly 20-year tenure in the hotel industry came to an end. Her husband, who was also working in hospitality, was laid off around the same time. “I was devastated,” she says.
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Between February and April 2020, New Jersey lost jobs in all of its major private-industry sectors, and unemployment spiked from 3.8 to 16.6 percent, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By June 2020, 1.24 million New Jersey workers, or about 28 percent of the labor force, had filed for unemployment benefits, either to make up for a lost job or lost hours.
O’Daniels was able to secure a job three months later as a sales consultant for the catalog-websites Wine Enthusiast and Wine Express, in a different industry where her skills were transferable. “I sold myself,” she says of convincing the hiring manager that she was the right person for the position, even though she didn’t fit the typical mold for an employee. But not every local job seeker has been so fortunate.
Now, almost two years later, the job market and the economy are being reshaped by a global pandemic that has had unpredictable repercussions. New Jersey workers and employers continue to pick up the pieces and adapt to an ever-changing situation.
“We are going through a reset,” says James W. Hughes, dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and a professor at Rutgers University. “We are not going back to the old normal. We are going to the next normal. We are going to have to live with Covid-19 and its variants. It’s not going away.”
CHANGING THE WAY WE WORK
Covid-19 interrupted a decade of continuous job growth in New Jersey. From February 2010 to February 2020, the state added 297,368 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It was actually a Goldilocks economy both in the U.S. and New Jersey,” says Hughes. “In February 2020, we had almost full employment, very low unemployment, and inflation was nowhere to be found. Not too hot, not too cold—just right.”
Before Covid-19, the New Jersey industry sectors projected to grow the most between 2018 and 2028 were leisure and hospitality, education and health services, and professional and business services, according to state reports. But the pandemic changed everything. Leisure and hospitality contributed the majority of jobs lost by April 2020—236,500 of the total 757,700.
The ability to work from home saved many jobs, says New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo. “About a quarter of our population is in those kinds of jobs that are amenable to hybrid or work from home,” he says. Those jobs include legal, accounting, architectural, engineering, advertising, consulting services and more. “In a sense, professional services and financial jobs were more protected.”
Take Amy Bermudez, 50, a Glen Ridge resident who had been in the textile industry for 25 years. She reinvented her career after the Italian company she worked for closed due to Covid-related issues soon after lockdown began. But first, she had to take care of her three school-age children between the ages of 7 and 10. “I had basically no choice but to stay home and take care of them,” she says. But then, she thought of the voiceover training she’d previously gotten to embark on a total career change. “I decided to go for it in a full-force way that I probably wouldn’t have before,” she says.
Bermudez used to ride the train into New York City every morning. Now, she walks upstairs to a third-floor bedroom in her house to work in a secondhand vocal booth she bought from a friend. So far, Bermudez has landed jobs like narrating a mindfulness meditation and an e-learning program. She also auditioned to be the voice of a mom in a video game. “I’m not thinking I’ll never go back to textiles, but for the time being, I’m just going to roll with this and do what I can,” says Bermudez. “It’s nice being home when the kids get home until Covid-19 is completely behind us.”
O’Daniels has also been working from home since leaving the hotel industry and getting a new job in sales for a wine company. Although it was an adjustment (“I didn’t have everyday clothes; I had 90 suits!”), remote work has allowed her to spend more time with her two middle school–age children. “My children have never seen me so much,” she says. “This virus was horrible; what happened to the world was horrible. My silver lining was that I got to be with my children and family.”
The rise of work from home, says Hughes, changed the nature of work, especially in New Jersey, which is sandwiched between two of the country’s largest cities, New York and Philadelphia, with a population of commuters well into the hundreds of thousands. “Work from home could rank as one of the great office-market disrupters of all time,” says Hughes. “The coronavirus shock exposed an outmoded white-collar workplace structure and ways of working. Many pre-Covid offices were being run as relics of the 20th century, despite massive advances in information technology. It is now recognized that work is much more of an activity than it is a physical place.”
Not everyone can work from home, though. “The pandemic has highlighted and reinforced our attention to inequities in our society,” says Aaron R. Fichtner, a former state labor commissioner and the current president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, one organization among several working together to create opportunities for New Jersey workers. “There were so many people who lost jobs in direct-services positions, and yet there were folks who transitioned and continued to work from home.” Fichtner adds that, as a result, not everyone felt the shock in the same way.
NO GOING BACK TO ‘BEFORE’ TIMES
Some New Jersey employers have adapted to a hybrid work model, in some instances to make things easier on their workers. A law firm headquartered in Newark, for example, created a secondary office at the Bell Labs complex in Monmouth County, where several employees live. “That might be a new model,” says Hughes.
But whether they’ve been working from home or in a hybrid environment, many New Jerseyans do not want to return to business as usual. “People are thinking about what they want to come back to,” says Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. “They don’t want to come back to the same jobs. They want more flexibility.” She adds that all workers—those who lost and those who kept their jobs—are realizing they have options, which include finding new positions or even changing careers.
Cedar Grove resident Alicia Mohren had been a stay-at-home mom when her husband was laid off from his job in television in March 2020. “All of the sudden, here we are, double unemployed,” she says. But the couple didn’t spend much time wallowing. Despite one of their three children being particularly vulnerable to the virus, Mohren knew she had to start working. She tapped into the variety of skills she’d acquired over the years and picked up part-time work as a gardener and interior decorator. She also began delivering flowers and selling unworn clothing online to make ends meet. Dipping her toes into several fields has its protections, says Mohren, because “I don’t have to worry about my industry.”
Although the state does not track data for gig workers—people who string together different part-time jobs to create full-time work—experts say there has been an increase of workers like Mohren. Siekerka says that, after getting laid off, some workers have not been as motivated to be loyal to one employer, and they see a lot of benefits in working for themselves. “They can work on their own terms, make their own schedules,” she says. Siekerka says that employers can lean into this trend and tap into qualified talent this way.
“We are having a hiring crisis right now,” says Siekerka. She explains that the recent labor shortage has been the result of many factors—workers needing to stay home to care for children, fear of catching the virus, reluctance to be vaccinated, extended unemployment benefits, federal stimulus money, and desire to be treated better and paid more by employers—creating a perfect storm.
“Labor-force participation has been down since Covid,” says Asaro-Angelo. “We are starting to rebound, but we are still below where we were in [early] 2020.” He adds that parents who stayed home are not included in the unemployment rate, and that women, in particular, staying home is an issue for the state as well as the nation. “They are twice as likely to leave the labor force altogether,” he says. “We are waiting to see whether they are going to come back.”
Siekerka says it’s a matter of making childcare more accessible for parents and sustainable as an industry. “If we don’t have a place to put our children, we can’t get our workers back to work,” she says. “You see it play out in the numbers.”
In October 2021, the state announced plans to invest more than $700 million, mostly from American Rescue Plan funding, to support parents in paying for childcare and providers in attracting and retaining workers, sustaining operations and maintaining facilities.
Another issue contributing to the labor shortage is a mismatch between the skills of available workers and the skills required for new jobs that are becoming available. “We do have enough people to go back to work, but the people we have are not matched well with the jobs that are available,” says Lesley Hirsch, assistant commissioner of research and information at the state labor department. “We need people to get reskilled in order to match the jobs.”
To help those who need to reskill and upskill, the state partners with several organizations, including industry associations, educational institutions and employers, to offer a variety of opportunities, says Asaro-Angelo. Last year, the state announced several new initiatives. The federally funded Return and Earn program offers $500 to unemployed workers reentering the workforce and receiving job training from businesses with 100 or fewer employees and provides wage subsidies to those employers for up to six months. Another example is New Jersey’s Growing Apprenticeships in Nontraditional Sectors (GAINS) grant program, meant to create new apprenticeships and expand existing ones, including establishing programs in high-growth industries, to support workers and businesses adversely affected by Covid-19. The state also committed $3 million to support the Basic Skills Training Grant Program, a partnership between the NJBIA and community colleges, to provide training for workers at no cost to them or their employers.
“We have seen the fruits of those investments,” says Asaro-Angelo. “Our next effort is going to provide training so that our role is not just funding apprenticeships, but teaching employers partnered with colleges and training entities to build and sustain their own efforts without public funding.”
Siekerka says it’s not just technology jobs that are requiring additional skills. “Every job has a technology aspect today,” she says, “so we all need to be tech savvy.” Experts say the pandemic accelerated the use of technology for work. Starting in March 2020, “we had three or four years of digital cultural adaptation in three weeks,” says Hughes. “Very few people knew what Zoom was in February 2020.”
Others say the need for technology exposed inequities. “It also has its barriers,” says Joel Bloom, president of New Jersey Institute of Technology. “Some communities aren’t as connected as other communities.” He adds that people without access to the Internet, who are usually lower income, were not able to be as resilient as others with more resources. Technology will continue to be a critical component to economic success for workers as well as employers. “If you are not improving and not innovating, you are probably dying as a company and an industry, and we are going to continue to see that,” he says.
WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKED
While some industries shrank during the pandemic, others expanded. For example, the shutdown accelerated the ongoing decline of in-person retail and spurred a boom in e-commerce, which often requires warehousing. Experts say the fastest growing sectors for job growth now are warehouse distribution, transportation and logistics. Asaro-Angelo adds that the trend, which he expects to continue, also benefits workers in supply-chain and other related fields. “It provides us some stability,” he says.
The lockdown and work-from-home shift also led to a boom in construction and construction jobs. “We started making major improvements to where we live, so we could live and work,” says Siekerka. She adds that people also built elements at their homes like pools because they weren’t leaving to go on vacation. The surge in home improvement also supported manufacturing jobs. “They are cranking out product like there’s no tomorrow,” says Siekerka.
By press time, the state’s unemployment rate had dropped to 7.1 percent. Experts say that, while New Jersey’s recovery lags behind the nation, it could take until 2023 or later for the state to fully recover.
One thing is for sure: Work, the job market and the economy in New Jersey will continue to evolve. “I’m not sure anyone could have predicted where we are now,” says Fichtner, “but change is going to be—and flexibility is going to be—the hallmark of the future.”
Additional reporting by Julie Gordon
Amanda Staab is a New Jersey native and longtime storyteller who seized the opportunity in the wake of Covid-19 to try something new and start her own public relations agency, Folkwise PR.
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