The Interview Issue: Robert Asaro-Angelo, once aspiring sports journalist, proves Labor Dept.’s value instead

By Alex Wolmart
Trenton  | Dec 17, 2018 at 6:00 am

Robert Asaro-Angelo grew up in a family of public servants. His father worked for the Atlantic County Board of Social Services before heading up AFSCME New Jersey, the public employees’ union. His mother ended her career as the deputy administrator of the Board of Social Services in Middlesex County.  

So, it only seems natural that his career path to his job as the state’s commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development started in Bristol, Connecuticut. 

At ESPN.

Huh?

That’s right, Asaro-Angelo dreamed of being a sportscaster. But it was when he was working for ESPN, in a dark control room in the middle of the night, that he realized he wanted to help people.

“I loved the energy and creativity, but I wasn’t helping anyone except shareholders,” he said. 

It’s why he turned down a full-time offer from ESPN shortly after graduating from Rutgers University and took an entry-level position in 1997 for Jim McGreevey’s coordinated campaign when he was running for governor. He hasn’t looked back.

Asaro-Angelo recently sat down with ROI-NJ to talk about his role in Trenton.

ROI-NJ: What has been your biggest success since taking over as commissioner? 

Robert Asaro-Angelo: It’s hard to point to one thing, because I think we’ve done a lot that I’m very proud of, but one big overall thing has been culture-busting. For a long time, with past administrations, this department was never at the top of the pile or front of mind for a governor. While there may have been some important initiatives, I truly feel, and one of the reasons I took this job, is that most of the governor’s agenda lives in this department.

When he had a campaign commercial about wage theft, that really hit home with me. (The person in the ad) talks about his dad having to get his money for him and the same thing happened to me. I was working down the Shore at a restaurant and hadn’t gotten paid in four weeks. I’m pretty sure no governor anywhere had a campaign commercial about wage theft. So, the culture-busting has been the biggest compliment, showing folks in this building that we’re important in the eyes of the governor.

ROI: What is something you thought would be easy to accomplish but have since discovered was difficult?

RA: Just like any employer in the state, I think the most difficult thing is hiring people. I talked about this in my budget testimony and in my confirmation testimony. We have spots in this building that have gone unfilled for years over multiple administrations that are federally funded. This department is not getting our tax dollars’ worth out of Washington. Our workforce development department is almost 100 percent federally funded. We just weren’t filling the spots because previous administrations were wary of having to increase the state workforce. But, I believe firmly that every time we make a hire in this department, especially since it’s all federally funded, it’s a direct investment not only in our economy, but in our ability to serve our customers and our residents.

So, I have an ambitious plan to refill all the empty cubicles, not just in this building, but also out in the field, where we hear from legislators on both sides of the aisle about folks who can’t be seen by an unemployment counselor or workforce job coach because there aren’t enough folks there to serve them. Quite frankly, it’s not so bad now, because our economy is doing well, but we need to be prepared when that isn’t the case.

ROI: Let’s talk about unions. Gov. Phil Murphy has been adamant about his support for union labor. Unions appreciated that — but they still say too many companies are skirting the issue, using nonunion labor, and cite the state’s inability to monitor the situation as the biggest problem. Does the state have enough personnel, and is it doing enough to stop the use of nonunion labor?

RA: We are agnostic about union or nonunion in our enforcement efforts. Clearly, I’m a strong union supporter, but nothing that we do has anything to do with unions. It has to do with things like workers’ wages and misclassification of them being an independent contractor or not. On construction sites, we enforce prevailing wage, and a lot of folks think prevailing wage means union, but it really doesn’t. There’s plenty of nonunion companies who properly pay the prevailing wage. This happens a lot of times, people thinking our department has a lot to do with unions when, quite frankly, we don’t. That’s the National Labor Relations Board. As far as union organizing, we certainly have roles in some workplace issues that unions bring to us, but we don’t have any role in regulating unions and we don’t have any role in saying whether or not someone is in a union. Do I personally think more people should be in a union to give themselves voice in the workplace? Absolutely. As commissioner, does it have any bearing on what I’m doing? Absolutely not. 

ROI: OK. On to the state — and its efforts to bring more business here. ‘You pay more to be here, but you get more to be here.’ That’s a great marketing phrase: Do you think it is working? Is there another higher-tax state that you use as a model?

RA: No one’s coming here for our low taxes. So, we need to make sure we’re providing value for what they’re paying for. So, I think we have a strong role to play in that, because, when I talk to businesses in the state, and I meet with business groups all the time — individual businesses, trade associations and sub-groups of businesses — not one, and I’m not even being hyperbolic, not one has complained to me about over-regulation. Not one has complained to me about overenforcement of wages. Not one has complained to me about being too strict on our (unemployment) taxes. Every single one I meet with wants workers — they want skilled workers.

What are we doing as a department to create broad talent ecosystems across the state? Apprenticeships are only a part of that. But I think a lot of it is just showing that we as a government have a plan.

ROI: Developing talent. We hear that all the time. Attraction and retention are huge buzzwords. So, let’s talk about a big issue with attraction: Going the trade route vs. going to college. How do you change the perceptions about each route?

RA: We made a big announcement at the end of apprenticeship week, which was early November, where we took concrete steps to reduce that stigma. I’ve talked about high school guidance counselors and how, basically once they’ve decided you’re not going to college, (students) start to lose their resources and support.

ROI: How can the state help change that?

RA: The Department of Education is changing their regulations (on their scorecards) to make it so (a school) sending a child to apprenticeship programs receives the same credit as sending a child to college. Hopefully it’ll be a big underpinning piece of reducing that stigma amongst our important thought leaders on this front, which would be thousands of guidance counselors, principals and educators across the state. Even though they may be supporters of apprenticeship programs or work-based learning, in the end, they were getting demerits for pushing a kid that way, which is really not how our system should be working.   

ROI: OK, now let’s get back to the question everyone wants you to answer. You turned down a job with ESPN — what so many people would consider a dream job, no matter the duties. How did that go down?

RA: There wasn’t a moment, but when I talk about this, I have a vision in my head of being in a control room editing Big Ten football highlights and having a conversation with the guy next to me about something in the governmental or political realm. I remember thinking, ‘What is the point of this?’ It was probably 4 in the morning and I was exhausted, but I just remember thinking that I wanted to do something more. I was so proud to be a part of an entity such as ESPN when it was only a couple hundred employees, but it was evident there wasn’t a career path there. … It wasn’t just wanting to serve the public, it was asking the question of, ‘Where is this going for me?’ So, being in a dark control room reviewing Big Ten highlights is what comes to mind when I think about that transition.

Conversation starter

  • Name: Robert Asaro-Angelo
  • Position: Commissioner
  • Organization: New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development
  • Type of Business: Governmental agency
  • Location: Trenton 
  • Date founded: 1948
  • Financial goals: Not disclosed
  • Website: nj.gov/labor/
  • Phone number: 609-292-7060

The Interview Issue