New York City’s official unemployment rate was 5.4 percent as of last month . Although that is the lowest rate for any March since 2001, the city’s rate is still higher than the state and national average of 4.7 percent. This number translates into 209,000 unemployed city residents.
Unemployment is difficult to measure, as is insufficient employment. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, 375,000 city residents are either unemployed or underemployed (meaning they work part time rather than full time), and 860,000 New Yorkers work at poverty level wages.
Several city agencies provide services to New Yorkers seeking jobs â€“ and all could be helped with an increase in technological services.
That was the message of two New York City Council members, Gale Brewer (who is chair of the technology committee of the council) and David Yassky (chair of the Committee on Small Business) at a recent hearing. Brewer will soon introduce legislation to offer technological enhancements to the city’s Workforce 1 facilities, where city residents can learn about employment programs available at the federal, state, and local level. Every borough houses at least one of these "one-stop" centers. All city residents can visit the centers, including people with well-paying jobs who desire to improve their skills, but the target populations are unemployed city residents and people with low-wage jobs who desire stable and/or better-paying work.
New York City’s Department of Small Business Services operates the Workforce 1 centers, which share quarters with NYC Business Solutions Centers. These seek to provide businesses with a skilled labor force. This direct interface between job seekers and employers began in July 2003.
The level of computer training varies between Workforce 1 centers, and is sometimes extensive. For example, the Brooklyn location offers (in pdf format) computer skills assessments and a wide range of courses about Microsoft Office programs . The Department of Small Business Services has forged successful partnerships with technology companies as well. Last year IBM donated special software that makes job searching easier for elderly city residents, and residents with limited English proficiency, who attend a Workforce 1 center.
The centers are typically open only during business hours, which limits the ability of people with low-paying jobs to avail themselves of their services. From March 2005 to March 2006, every Workforce 1 facility combined served 81,300 city residents, which is a large number considering how few centers there are.
Brewer and others suggest several technological upgrades to make these centers more useful, such as creating a centralized Web site for all city job seekers. Another idea would be to tap into the New York State Department of Labor’s database of unemployed residents throughout the state, which includes a description of their skills and work history. The city’s Workforce 1 facilities do not currently have access to this database. With this information, facility workers would be able to match job seekers with appropriate employers more easily.
Another improvement would be personalized online job-seeking and resume-building tools, accessible with an ID and password. The State Department of Labor already provides such tools, and the city’s Department of Small Business Services is investigating how to establish them. The benefit of this approach is greater autonomy over the job-seeking process. One challenge in impoverished city neighborhoods will be establishing a level of Internet connectivity that would make this service useful.
Even if all of these ideas come to fruition, the likelihood is that city residents on public assistance will not receive as much benefit as others. As the Gazette has documented, the Workforce 1 centers typically serve city residents who are not on public assistance. Thus, despite the City Council’s desire to increase assistance to everyone seeking employment, upgrades to Workforce 1 services are likely to help some city residents more than others.
Federal job assistance funding priorities are a significant reason for the increased attention to Workforce 1 facilities; to some extent, this budgetary reality renders concerns about equity moot. In an analysis of the Bush administration’s 2006 budget proposals, the National Employment Law Project observes national momentum toward making Workforce 1-type facilities “the preferred delivery mode for a growing range of public services”. Hopefully the Workforce 1 facilities will soon offer an increased range of services, which will serve as a model of technological support for all city job seekers.