South Jersey’s economy—and by extension its labor market—depends heavily on several industries, from white-collar positions in higher education and high-skilled jobs in medicine and technology to jobs in construction, agriculture, and warehouses.
How will these industries live next year? And how will it affect the employment landscape in South Jersey?
Camden County touted a record low unemployment rate recently when the state Department of Labor and Development of Labor Resources released data showing the county’s unemployment rate was 3 percent in September, while the city of Camden’s unemployment rate was just 5.5 percent. County officials, in a release, contrasted that with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when closings, illnesses and other disruptions have caused the city and county unemployment rates to skyrocket to 22 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively.
Richard Michelfelder, an assistant professor of finance at Rutgers University-Camden, said there are structural problems specific to South Jersey: Salem, Cape May, Atlantic, Gloucester, Camden and some Burlington counties have some of the lowest rates in the state for educational attainment. . and median income and the highest in households living in poverty and the unemployment rate.
Generational poverty in South Jersey can be attributed to the decline of industry in Camden, the seasonality of agricultural work in Cumberland County, the rise and fall of casinos in Atlantic City, and construction and other industries. at the mercy of cyclical ups and downs. The collapse of industries that were once vital to the region’s economy, such as shipbuilding, glassmaking and manufacturing, contributed to a “long-term decline,” Michelfelder said, which is only now beginning to improve.
“It’s starting to turn around, but not quite yet,” he said. “Even if it seems like ancient history, the problems that arose from those losses still exist.”
Michelfelder pointed out that South Jersey’s main growing industries, medicine and higher education, are some of the bright spots in the region’s economy.
“You have all these hospitals near us: Cooper, Virtua, AtlanticCare, Inspira, Jefferson. And they all have thousands of employees. And health care is not cyclical; no matter what else happens in the rest of the economy, people still get sick and they still need care.”
Healthcare workers are in high demand in South Jersey and across the country, he noted, and registered nurses can earn between $80,000 and $100,000. The pharmaceutical industry also pays professionals well, and although most are located in central and northern counties, workers can and do commute from South Jersey.
“But these are all highly skilled jobs,” he added.
Several institutions of higher learning in South Jersey, from community colleges to Stockton, Rutgers and Rowan universities, “all have very large footprints and pay quite well,” Michelfelder said. These jobs also often require education and training.
Other major South Jersey industries, however, are susceptible to economic downturns and other external factors. Casinos face more competition than ever from online bookmakers and Pennsylvania gaming establishments, and people tend to gamble less and spend less money on dinners and shows when they’re struggling financially due to inflation.
Commercial real estate has been hit by the shift to more hybrid and remote work, with companies looking to save money by downsizing facilities. And the once-hot housing market cooled as interest rates on a 30-year conventional mortgage doubled from 3.45 percent in January to 6.9 percent in October, according to Freddie Mac.
Michelfelder noted that this could have a ripple effect on construction and smaller trades such as plumbers, carpenters and heating and cooling installers.
While layoffs in the tech sector have made headlines, Michelfelder said it’s mostly in the executive ranks. “Amazon will retain those who are needed to keep Amazon running,” he said, including warehouse workers and drivers.
Michelfelder was hesitant to make too many clear predictions given the unprecedented challenges facing the economy as a whole.
“The pandemic has been a shock to the whole system, and when a shock like that happens, nothing is the same,” he said. “If you’re not working but not actually looking for work, you’re no longer considered unemployed,” so the numbers could be skewed by older people who retired earlier than they planned rather than risk contracting COVID, or people who left workforce due to lack of childcare or unskilled hospitality and retail workers who quit to go back to college or prepare for a career.
“At some point, this labor shortage will turn into a surplus,” he said. “But we really don’t know how long it might take.”
Phaedra Tretton has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, focusing on quality of life and social justice issues for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. It has called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips, or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @By_Phaedra or by phone at 856.486-2417.
Help support local journalism digital subscription.