NJTPA Update Blog

June 2021

Panel Explores COVID-19’s Impact on Employment 

Posted: 6/22/2021 1:12:13 PM

Two men and a woman talk in an office building while wearing face masks.Employers will have to be flexible, provide a positive workplace culture and potentially allow for teleworking if they want to attract and retain employees, according to a panel of experts.  

Representatives from workforce development boards, small businesses and the Employers Association of New Jersey (EANJ) offered their perspectives on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on employment during the latest Together North Jersey Institute event, Post-Pandemic Workforce Development Challenges and Changes. North Jersey Partners, a collaborative of workforce Investment boards in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Morris, Sussex, Warren, Passaic and Union counties, co-hosted the event.  

John Sarno, president of EANJ, said businesses are still struggling to fill minimum wage positions, but there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic. His organization is comprised of more than 3,200 employers throughout the state, ranging from small family-owned businesses to large corporations. He said 80 percent of EANJ members had to cut wages, furlough or layoff staff during the pandemic. Now that things are reopening, it has been hard to fill vacancies. 

“As we meet today, we have more job vacancies than we have people looking for work and we have people quitting jobs at a 20-year high, particularly those people who have options,” he said citing national employment statistics.  

He said workers faced additional stress and mental health issues related to the pandemic. How employers responded to that made a difference. He said workers who had options quit and took positions at businesses that were employee-centric and offered a culture of caring.  

 “I think the bad employers got worse, but the good employers got better and now we have an opportunity to learn from those good employers,” he said.  

While the pandemic presented multiple challenges, small businesses said it also allowed them to embrace technology and find new ways to continue their work.  

Elizabeth Gloeggler, CEO of Literacy Volunteers, said her non-profit had never provided virtual reading and writing instruction. However, since March 16, 2020, they have served 1,519 clients virtually and didn’t have to layoff staff. The organization employs 21 people in offices throughout the state.  

While Gloeggler said it was a challenge teaching clients how to use the devices they had available to them — whether that was a cell phone, tablet or computer — and how to connect to resources, the pandemic also removed physical barriers. For the first time, staff at all locations were able to meet and conduct training together remotely.  

Penny Muccia, dean of Parisian Beauty Academy, shared a similar experience. The school had never offered virtual instruction but had to quickly shift to that. Figuring out how to teach a hands-on trade virtually was a challenge, but she said being part of the larger Paul Mitchell Partner Schools, which has 114 other schools, helped them problem solve and develop curriculum.  

For the first time the school was able to host virtual tours for interested high school students and their parents and they also held job fairs to connect students with potential employers. She said the technology was a “game changer.”  

Jane Armstrong, executive director of the Morris-Sussex-Warren Workforce Development Board and an officer of North Jersey Partners, and Miriam Salerno, who manages research for Rutgers’ Public Outreach and Engagement Team, presented the findings of a research study, Understanding the Workforce Development Needs of Small and Mid-Sized New Jersey Employers, which began prior to the pandemic and had to pivot when businesses were hit by COVID-19 restrictions.  

The research found there was a need for assistance and support with workforce training.  

Armstrong said many businesses were unaware of the resources available to them and suggested that a portal listing all the resources in one place would help them recover from COVID-19 and also succeed in the future.  

Armstrong said the surveys and focus groups also highlighted ways employers can work to retain and attract staff, including focusing on outcome-based work, rather than requiring employees to work set time periods. Salerno said this could also help provide flexibility to workers who need to care for children or older adults at home and who are struggling to balance both.  

Tammy Molinelli, chair of North Jersey Partners and executive director of the Bergen County Workforce Development Board, said workplace culture and morale were areas of concern prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 only elevated these issues.  

She said companies that embrace technology and a hybrid workforce, which allows for remote work, can improve employee engagement, operate more efficiently, and increase collaboration.  

“Companies that we anticipate doing well are those organizations that look at human resources and look at their human capital as an asset,” she said. Molinelli said these companies will be “able to look at people, understand how they work, what their abilities are, and engage those people in the business to move the company forward.”  

Trucking Industry Bouncing Back and Facing Challenges, Experts Tell NJTPA Committee

Posted: 6/16/2021 11:30:37 AM

As the economy recovers, the trucking industry faces surging demand for moving goods but remains hampered by a severe driver shortage despite offering higher wages, along with a continuing need for additional truck parking. The NJTPA Freight Initiatives Committee learned about these dilemmas and other issues facing the industry from experts at the June 14 committee meeting.

Committee Chair Charles Kenny, a Middlesex County Commissioner, welcomed participants and introduced the speakers who provided the NJTPA with its annual trucking Industry update.

Bob Costello, Chief Economist for the American Trucking Associations, said the surge in demand for goods movement covers all aspects of freight. This includes consumer goods being boosted by a tremendous growth in e-commerce; demand for construction materials driven by home building activity at a level greater than before the Great Recession; and expanding manufacturing despite headwinds from the pandemic and international competition.

But the lack of drivers is hampering the industry’s response. “Demand is up; pricing is strong,” Costello said. “Supply [of labor] should be coming around and increasing but it’s doing the opposite – it’s decreasing.”

Among the causes of the driver shortage are structural factors: an older workforce compared to other industries; restrictions on people under 21 becoming drivers; very few women drivers (only 7 percent compared to 42 percent for other jobs); and drug and alcohol screening banning drivers even for marijuana use. Overall, he said the industry is facing a shortage of over 100,000 drivers nationally.

Increased pay for drivers is not necessarily the answer, he said. Often, given the grueling nature of the work – especially for long haul drivers – other factors can matter more, including avoiding spending long stretches away from home. In considering jobs, he said, “A lot of people are saying, you know what, I'll take less money and be home every day.” Many drivers are switching to companies serving local markets or taking advantage of increased pay to work fewer hours.

The next speaker, Daniel Murray, Senior Vice President of the American Transportation Research Institute, said despite the challenges, 2021-2022 should be “a banner year” for the industry. He said a recent report by his organization found that truck parking was drivers’ top concern, beating out wages/compensation for the first time. He said the daily difficulties of finding parking contributed to drivers leaving the industry – “the last nail in the coffin, sort of thing” he said.

If the lack of parking is not addressed – for instance through dedicated funding in the next federal infrastructure bill – he said the issue “could have repercussions far into the future” for the nation’s ability to meet freight demands. Providing secure and safe parking is particularly important for attracting more women drivers, he said.

Also of great concern is a growing shortage of diesel mechanics to service more sophisticated – and eventually automated – trucks and rising costs for insurance which often places the largest burdens on small operators, Murray said.

Thomas Weakley, Director of Operations at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the owner-operators in his organization faced an “extremely difficult” 2020 due to the loss of business and the tight profit margins on which they operate. But with the recovery, most are now benefiting from growing demand to haul freight and increasing prices. He said in contrast to staff shortages facing large trucking companies, there is a growing demand by truckers to become owner-operators. Applications for authorization to become independent are up 60 percent from last year, reflecting in part the greater flexibility and ability to choose shorter trips afforded by independence.

He underscored the importance of expanding truck parking, noting that drivers can face “ripple effects” from the failure to find parking – committing violations of service hours, continuing to drive when fatigued, longer idling and being forced to park illegally and unsafely. Other pressing issues facing owner-operators include the growing burden of tolls and congestion pricing; delays at ports due to backups in processing ship cargoes; growing pressures to meet tight delivery timeframes as a result of consumer demands; and unfair insurance rates with threats of further increases and new regulations.

Following their remarks, the three speakers were asked what they view as the greatest threats to the industry. Among the issues mentioned were the continuing driver shortage which is causing turnover and increasing competition among carriers; the threat of drug testing to sideline drivers for minor offenses involving marijuana use, which many states have legalized; and lack of federal progress and agreement in Congress on investing in needed infrastructure to improve roads and support drivers. A recording of the meeting and the presentation slides are available at njtpa.org/June2021FIC.

Symposium Explores Future of Driverless Vehicles, Assistive Technology

Posted: 6/10/2021 9:43:31 AM

It might be hard to imagine a taxi or delivery van travelling the roads transporting people and goods all without a driver behind the wheel. But Waymo is testing these vehicles on Arizona roads today.

New Jersey will also soon be a testing ground for connected and autonomous vehicles thanks to a project being spearheaded by the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Technology at Rutgers University, in partnership with Middlesex County, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and several academic and private partners.

These initiatives were among the presentations made during a recent NJTPA symposium, Connected and Automated Vehicles: Planning for the Future. These emerging technologies are among the “game changers” that the NJTPA must consider as it develops its next long-range transportation plan, Plan 2050: Transportation, People, Opportunity. NJTPA Chair Kathryn DeFillippo noted that technological advancements can offer many benefits, but also raise concerns.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to make travel much safer, yet at the same time they raise significant safety issues,” DeFillippo told attendees in her welcoming remarks. “They may provide new opportunities for low-income, transit-dependent travelers, yet they could also fuel future sprawl. These are just some of the questions regarding this technology that the NJTPA must consider.”

The event featured remarks by Dr. Michell D. Erickson, who retired as a senior executive from the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security where he assessed emerging technologies that can help prevent or mitigate threats. Erickson also moderated a panel discussion featuring Solomon Caviness, head of the Middlesex County Department of Transportation; Dr. Peter Jin and associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Dr. Jerry Lutin a consultant working on automated bus technology; and Joseph Montano, the state policy manager for Waymo.

Rutgers is working with Middlesex County to develop a Smart Mobility Living Lab in New Brunswick that would include roadside sensors to monitor and communicate with self-driving vehicles, a testing facility, a data hub, and a platform to support research and development. NJDOT has provided $1.3 million for the first phase, which includes installing sensors on Routes 18 and 27 to create a corridor where researchers can monitor self-driving and connected vehicles, but also observe things like near misses between pedestrians and vehicles. This can help develop strategies to improve safety, Jin said. Rutgers is working with Middlesex County to also install the technology on county roads, including Easton Avenue and French Street.

“We ultimately want to make this a technology breeding ground for the region,” Jin said.

Caviness said the project would allow the county to work with public and private partners to better understand how the technology can be deployed to best meet the needs of all constituents.

Lutin spoke about the use of connected and automated technology to improve bus rapid transit. This includes implementing technologies already in consumer vehicles today, like collision avoidance and automated breaking and lane keeping. He said the technology can also be used for precision docking, which would ensure buses are close enough to platforms to accommodate people with disabilities. In addition, platooning technology can enable buses to travel closer together, dramatically increasing the number of buses that could travel through the Lincoln Tunnel during rush hour, for example.

“The goal is not to remove the driver, but to provide technology that will allow transit authorities to transport more passengers, more safely, more comfortably and with greater accessibility for the mobility impaired,” he said.

While many of the bus pilots underway keep drivers in their seats, Waymo is testing the technology without anyone behind the wheel.

Montano said Waymo is using four types of technology, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), which uses lasers to detect objects, cameras, radar and a computer platform with artificial intelligence, to provide a 360-degree view around vehicles.

Waymo One, an on-demand rideshare service, moves thousands of people a month around the streets of Chandler, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb. Montano said the testing is limited to Chandler and vehicles cannot travel outside the area.

Waymo Via is an autonomous delivery pilot program being conducted in partnership with UPS and AutoNation. Montano said that UPS uses minivans with Waymo technology to shuttle packages from UPS stores in the Phoenix metro area to the company’s hub in Tempe. AutoNation uses Waymo vehicles to deliver parts to the metro Phoenix area. In addition, while customers are having their personal vehicles serviced, Auto Nation offers them a Waymo driverless vehicle to travel in, rather than a traditional courtesy car. While Waymo Via vehicles are driverless, delivery people do ride in the vehicles, he said.

The company is also testing Waymo Via for truck delivers along Interstates 10, 20 and 45 in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and on Interstate 280 and U.S. Route 101 near the company’s headquarters in California. He said they hope to expand the test locations.