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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


A Critical But Too Often Ignored Piece to New York City’s Economic Recovery

resource bk cityhall

A resource fair (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ mayoral Photography Office)

Getting people back to work safely after the record-breaking job losses seen during the pandemic is on everyone’s mind. While this will require a multi-faceted approach, the frontline workforce field, i.e. the professionals responsible for training and connecting marginalized jobseekers with employers looking for skilled workers, is generally overlooked in this conversation. Real economic recovery won’t happen without clear and strategic investment in the workforce development training sector.

The field is no stranger to supporting underserved communities behind the scenes during tough economic times. They supported low-income workers and jobseekers through the labor market downturns after 9/11 and during the Great Recession, stagnant minimum wages and welfare reforms, and stop-and-frisk policing that created lifetime criminal records used to deny employment.

Food service, hospitality, retail, and personal care industries were hit hardest by the pandemic, which disproportionately employed low-income workers and workers of color. Even if the economy bounces back and jobs quickly become available, low-income communities in New York City don’t have adequate access to the skills and background experience needed to acquire many of them.

Businesses in every sector are rethinking operations, requiring updated skills from employees. Preexisting education and digital literacy barriers put low-income communities at a significant disadvantage in securing stable and sufficient employment in a post-pandemic world. Given how quickly jobs are changing and industries are innovating, there now needs to be even more consideration around how to prepare people for available jobs long-term.

In order to meet this historic challenge, we need to fully understand the needs of the sector dedicated to getting folks back to work. Over the past few months, Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI) conducted a series of surveys analyzing frontline workforce professionals and the industry at large, and released the first in a series of reports titled “An Introduction To New York City’s Frontline Workforce Professionals” outlining who they are, who they serve, and what they need to succeed.

The 362 professionals surveyed confirmed a lot of what we already knew. Frontline workforce development professionals are disproportionately women (67%) and people of color (72%) who are often underpaid and in precarious situations themselves. Despite having higher education levels than other NYC employees on average, they earn lower wages. Just over one-quarter of respondents agreed that their take-home earnings are only enough to cover basic living expenses.

Making matters worse, there’s no clear pipeline to the workforce development training field and rarely a clear career trajectory or job description once you’re in it. Many respondents anecdotally noted that they “fell into” or “stumbled upon” this field. Seventy percent (70%) of survey respondents agreed that they would like to advance within their current organization, but less than half feel that requirements for advancement are clear. Simultaneously, 72% indicated being responsible for four or more distinct job responsibilities and, even more troubling, nearly one-quarter selected an overwhelming 10 or more duties. It’s important to note that these responses were captured before the COVID-19 pandemic: this doesn’t capture the added pressure of bringing previously in-person programs entirely online and addressing digital literacy gaps and broadband access needs. 

While the sector doesn’t need fanfare to do this work, the systemic barriers they face are now too large to ignore. With state and city budget shortfalls likely to cause short- and long-term delays in government contracts and other funding, we need the private sector and the federal government to supplement existing funding for the workforce development sector to adequately address this crisis. In order to encourage greater talent retention and create the best possible outcomes for jobseekers, we need to encourage retention and invest in the field with the experience and expertise needed to get New Yorkers back on their feet and into careers with growth potential.

COVID-19 has permanently changed many aspects of life, and the workforce development sector is no exception. For employers to more easily access qualified talent as the job market expands again, they – and we as a city – need frontline workforce professionals.

Sharon Sewell-Fairman is the Executive Director of the Workforce Professionals Training Institute. On Twitter @WPTIorg.

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