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Panelists emphasize importance of targeted employment growth

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New Jersey's unemployment rate won't begin to fall until the public sector engages business to target areas for sustainable economic growth, government officials and business leaders said Tuesday at Plan Smart New Jersey's regional planning summit on the draft state strategic plan.

According to Aaron Fitchner, deputy commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, eight industries — life sciences, tourism, advanced manufacturing, health care, agriculture, financial services, technology and entrepreneurship, and transportation, logistics and distribution — account for half of all current direct employment in the state, so the key to spurring the clusters of economic growth outlined in the strategic plan is to enhance opportunities for building the work forces of those sectors.

The Chris Christie administration's response was a series of talent networks designed to streamline the employment process; host events and websites to connect employers and job seekers; and develop strategies for work force growth based on the needs of businesses, higher education, and state and local government.

"Our talent development strategies build on the state plan effort, and this is the first time, in a holistic way, that we're understanding the challenges in building a skilled work force for these industries," Fitchner said. "New Jersey is a great place for talent, and we want to keep it that way. But we can't help people get back to work unless we understand where the economy is going and what skills the employers need."

According to Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ — the industry organization that's leading the life sciences talent network — biotechnology firms tend to cluster together in terms of location, which complements the state plan aim of targeting specific areas for land use and development. Hart said as more large pharmaceutical companies consolidate and cut staff, there will be a greater demand for laboratory space from smaller biotech businesses, which is currently lacking in life sciences clusters like Piscataway and Newark.

"The feedback from businesses has been tremendous, and partnering with the state allows us to build services for job training to fit these employers' needs," Hart said. "It's clear that there is a very critical need from both sides, and this is a very creative approach to fill the gaps."

According to Dan Kennedy, deputy director of the Office for Planning Advocacy at the Department of State, the strategic plan focuses on economic development in industry-specific sectors of the state and areas that can better meet the public's transportation and housing needs, rather than funneling efforts and funding to urban centers.

"Incentives like the Urban Transit Hub (tax credit) program have changed things, but we've been observing consumer preference studies, and workers and businesses naturally wanted to be in more urban markets before those were in place," Kennedy said. "But not every sector will go to an urban center, so it's important to get a sense of the clusters that best fit each industry, and target growth for those places. The vision is to work with private and public investments and have communities to drive (economic development), not necessarily the state government."

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