When Robert Asaro-Angelo talks about his goals and priorities as the new commissioner of the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the conversation keeps coming back to his deep ties to Rutgers.
Whether it’s the lessons he learned in the classrooms at the Eagleton Institute of Politics while working toward his master’s degree, the partnerships he hopes to engage in with the university to develop the state’s workforce, or the Rutgers job training program he views as a model for the state, his connection to the university continues to shape nearly every aspect of his job.
It was evident on the day of his swearing in during the summer. His guests in the audience included his longtime mentor Carl Van Horn, director of Rutgers’ Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Eagleton’s director Ruth B. Mandel and Debbie Walsh, who oversees Eagleton’s Center for American Women and Politics.
“I am a huge Rutgers fan. Eagleton means a lot to me and Rutgers means a lot to me,’’ said Asaro-Angelo, an East Brunswick native. “I am very Jersey proud and Rutgers is what ties the state together.’’
In his new role, Asaro-Angelo oversees a 3,000-person department that administers the state’s unemployment and temporary disability insurance, enforces wage and hour laws, ensures workers’ safety, and is expanding apprenticeship opportunities.
His first priorities have been to fill vacancies in the department, improve employee morale and significantly reduce response times to answer questions from the state’s residents. He is in charge of enforcing the state’s new equal pay and paid sick leave laws and aims to increase participation in the state’s underutilized family leave insurance program.
He is also working with Gov. Phil Murphy to develop programs to build a skilled workforce including the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network that would train workers in clean energy, information technology, healthcare and other industries. He points to the New Jersey’s Healthcare Talent Network at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations as a model.
“I am proud that Rutgers is leading the way and I am talking about building and expanding upon what Rutgers has already done,’’ Asaro-Angelo said.
His ties to Rutgers even played a role in his selection as labor commissioner. Van Horn, who served as a senior advisor on Gov. Murphy’s transition team, recommended Asaro-Angelo for the job. Asaro-Angelo had kept in touch with Van Horn throughout his career and would turn to him for a national perspective on workforce development issues while working at the U.S Department of Labor under President Obama.
“I can’t imagine a person better prepared to take on this important responsibility in the state of New Jersey,’’ Van Horn said. “Rob has extensive experience in all aspects of the department and has an understanding of the people he is trying to serve who need training and education to get ahead in their careers.’’
Asaro-Angelo has maintained a strong connection to Eagleton since completing his master’s degree nearly 20 years ago. As a member of its alumni committee, he works to provide mentoring opportunities like the ones he received at Rutgers that made a difference in his career. He provided externship opportunities for Rutgers students while working in the federal government and plans to do the same in the state.
“I believe strongly in government service,” Asaro-Angelo said. “I want to make sure when students are getting nonstop messages from the outside world about what it means to be in politics or government that I am here to tell them it’s something important that affects people’s lives and it can be rewarding.’’
Asaro-Angelo also has some sentimental ties to Rutgers. He is the son of two alumni and grew up attending Rutgers football games. He met his wife Sarah Kan at Rutgers while working toward his degree in public policy. He graduated the same year his father, Robert Angelo, completed a doctorate in education at Rutgers.
His belief in the value of public service, which was refined at Rutgers, started with this family. His mother, Meryle Asaro, who was class president at Douglass College, later became council president in East Brunswick. His father was a leader in AFSCME, a union that represents public employees, and taught labor studies at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Many family members including his grandfather, aunts and uncles were public employees.
“They showed me that public service is something noble to be looked up to,’’ Asaro-Angelo said. “When you are in government you are affecting the lives of everyone around you. It’s very fulfilling to me.’’