A new report finds it will take years for the New Jersey economy to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. But a complete job-loss rebound could take decades.

According to Michael Lahr, a professor of planning and public policy and director of the Rutgers University Economic Advisory Service, 16.7% of New Jersey’s 4.2 million jobs were lost between February and May in stores, restaurants, hotels, recreation, entertainment and personal services.

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“How long is it going to take us to get back? Job-wise, we’ll never be back to the level of jobs that we had, at least not for the foreseeable future, and that’s like 30 years out,” he said.

The report finds during the pandemic in New Jersey, the accommodations and food service industries lost 137,300 jobs, health care and social assistance and retail trade each lost approximately 55,000 jobs, while administrative support and waste management lost just under 50,000 jobs.

Two other sectors also suffered major job losses – what the report terms “other services” (51,900 jobs), which includes professional associations, religious organizations, and personal service establishments such as dry cleaners, hair dressers, car washes, and repair shops, and arts, entertainment and recreation services (46,400 jobs).

He noted two rounds of federal stimulus funding and expanded unemployment insurance helped to support household spending in the Garden State and prevented a full-blown disaster. But the outlook for personal income growth has substantially weakened in the state for the next few years.

Lahr said the recent return of limited capacity indoor dining, indoor amusements and movie theaters is positive, but many of the jobs lost during the pandemic, especially in bricks-and mortar retail establishments, won’t come back because the trend toward online shopping has been greatly accelerated.

“People have now learned that they can order online a little bit better because they couldn’t go to stores for a while,” he said. “A lot more people are buying things online than ever before.”

He noted when people are buying things on their computer or smart phone, “the wholesale site may be out in central Pennsylvania, perhaps Harrisburg or Middletown or some other place like that, and the phone call centers are probably out in Iowa.”

In addition, he said “teleconferencing and telecommuting has made it so that we’re less likely to have jobs here.”

Lahr said the New Jersey economy has already started to rebound but he believes we won’t really see significant progress until 2024, when he projects the unemployment rate to be at about 5%.

“We’ll see strong growth the next couple of years,” he said. “It just won’t be quite so immediate. Some things can’t rebound that quickly. For example, we’re not going to see many sporting events with people going to visit them.”

He also noted theaters won’t be able to offer full capacity seating “for a long time, at least until we get ample supply of an effective vaccine and that’s probably not going to happen until sometime next summer.”

He stressed while this is not a doom and gloom scenario, “it’s still dire.”

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