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Coalition Outlines How Next Mayor Should Address Workforce Development During City’s Economic Recovery

workforce development

Workforce development (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Invest in Skills New York City, a citywide coalition part of a state group focused on prioritizing workforce development, recently released a report examining how the city’s workforce development funding is spent and issuing recommendations for the next mayor to improve how that work feeds the city’s economic recovery from the devastation of the covid pandemic.

In “Follow the Money,” Invest in Skills breaks down New York City’s workforce development spending and offers three categories of recommendations for the new mayor, who is set to take office January 1 with the city’s economy still hurting and unemployment still high from the impacts of COVID-19. While the report was released before the election, we now know that Democrat Eric Adams, who talks a lot about improving workforce development in the city, will be the next mayor.

“People,” “Community,” and “Systems” are the three categories of recommendations in the report, which has the stated goals of ensuring equitable and long-term economic gains for the city’s workforce.

The pandemic has taken a toll on workforces across the country and New York City residents have been among the worst off given the timing of the first wave and particulars of the impact of the virus in the five boroughs, including on the city's formerly massive tourist economy. Examining workforce development anew in the context of the city’s economic reopening and, to some degree, reinvention, Invest in Skills New York City sought to understand how the system of “75 funding streams administered by 21 city agencies that support workforce development programming” operate to help New Yorkers.

The study comes at a critical time, with New York City seeing a slower economic recovery from the pandemic in comparison to the rest of the state and country. The city’s unemployment rate, which skyrocketed from about 4% before the pandemic to over 20% at its height. At the end of September 2021, the statewide unemployment rate has dropped to 7.1%, while New York City’s rate is at 9.8%. The city is particularly important in the context of workforce recovery since before the pandemic, New York City was home to a record high of 4.69 million jobs.

Services including job counseling, job training, placement to subsidized work opportunities, and other programs are part of New York City’s workforce development “ecosystem,” a complex system of nonprofits, for-profits, and agencies at the federal, state, and city levels of government. During good and bad economic times, that ecosystem must work for those who need work or are looking to change jobs or be able to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The economic catastrophe brought on by the pandemic raised the stakes to unseen heights, provoking the latest Invest in Skills report.

There is widespread hope that the federal government will pass the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is pushing and it will both create workforce development opportunities and many thousands of jobs, and a variety of groups and officials -- including the de Blasio administration and Mayor-elect Adams -- have been looking at the best ways to prepare. There are serious quetsions, however, whether the city has been taking smart steps to prepare its workforce and workforce development programs for the new economy.

The Invest in Skills examination of the city’s workforce development spending based on funding sources shows New York City government paying for about half, with the other half coming from federal, state, and private sources. A large portion of workforce development funding in the city is used for subsidized wages and wraparound services for students in high school and college, the report says. The workforce development budget is “large,” according to Invest in Skills, but only a small percentage of it is used for job training and placement, services that are incredibly important for dislocated workers. One conclusion of the assessment is that the current distribution of funds may limit the realization of an equitable economic recovery for New Yorkers given the lack of focus on job training and placement.

The way in which the workforce development budget is distributed to programs that offer different types of services also affects how these programs can recover from budget cuts. For instance, the losses in the workforce development budget, such as the federal Workforce Innovations and Opportunities (WIOA) funding has decreased by around $4 million, negatively impacted the programs that job training and placement at a higher rate than programs focused on education. The education-based Adult and Youth Programs have been able to recover from the WIOA funding reduction through increased support from other sources. In contrast, the Dislocated Worker Program, which helps those whole have lost work to find employment, has not been able to recover in the same way. During the recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic, these programs are crucial in aiding workers displaced by the pandemic.

While overall New York City’s workforce development programming is well-funded, many of these programs are not focused on job placement. According to the Invest in Skills report, many that offer important services, like job training, aid in education access, or adult literacy education, do not offer job counseling or track long-term job placement among participants.

Workforce development programs that seek to immediately connect New Yorkers with work are not as well funded as suggested by the total workforce development program spending. Narrowing the definition of workforce funding to exclude education programs, such as those promoting college access and adult literacy, and subsidized wage programs more than halves the funds. According to Invest in Skills, the decentralized nature of New York City’s workforce development system makes it difficult to fully dissect the funding and outcomes of these programs.

As the incoming Mayor Adams considers how to best support New York City workers in the recovery from COVID-19, Invest in Skills lays out key recommendations in the three aforementioned categories of people, community, and systems.

For people, Invest in Skills advises “expanding education, workforce training and jobs” for workers impacted by the pandemic through increased investment in "On-Ramps to Skills" training.

On the community level, the organization calls for the creation of a permanent workforce development fund to facilitate sustainable and long-term financial support for workforce development initiatives. The report encourages the formation of quality neighborhood-based talent pipelines by allocating 10% of all economic development initiative funds to local community-based organizations to aid workforce development. Also recommended is investing in subsidized employment, with public funds to support unemployed and under-employed New Yorkers to connect them to employment opportunities

“System” adjustments Invest in Skills wants to see would, its report says, foster a more streamlined and effective workforce development network to further sustainable economic recovery. To address the decentralized nature of New York City’s workforce development system and its resulting shortcomings, the report calls on the next mayor to appoint and empower a “senior administration official” dedicated to workforce needs. The administration should collect workforce related data, it also says, to connect employer and employee needs and set city-wide standards to measure economic recovery and programs outcomes.

For those focused on workforce development and jobs, there is reason to hope that Mayor-elect Adams will focus on the issue: during his election night victory speech, he promised, "We are going to launch an unprecedented job program to link out-of-work New Yorkers not just with jobs, but with skills and training."

by Naomi Buchanan, Gotham Gazette

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