Mayor Adams at a small business (photo: office of Eric Adams)
New York City’s wounded economy and the rise and fall of key sectors during the pandemic has heightened pre-pandemic concerns about the match between the labor needs of employers and the skills of hundreds of thousands of jobseekers. Eric Adams made better preparing the city's workforce a major area of focus as he pitched his vision of the city's recovery to New Yorkers in his successful campaign for mayor.
"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," Adams said in his election night victory speech in November, where he also promised to bring businesses to New York and bolster the education system to prepare young people for employment.
On the campaign trail last year, Adams promised a "next-level" workforce development strategy with the goal of connecting businesses with prospective employees and jobseekers with the training programs to gain the credentials needed for available jobs, particularly in growing industries and fields. The path involves de-siloing numerous government-funded labor training programs and establishing public-private partnerships to map local talents and job opportunities.
"We have jobs that are open and we have people that are available but might not necessarily have the skills to do those particular jobs. So there is a divide that needs to be filled in a really coordinated way," said Deputy Mayor for Strategic Initiatives Sheena Wright, then chair of Adams' transition team, in a mid-November interview on WNYC radio.
"Government can play a role there and that's what this next administration is really endeavoring to do," she said of addressing the "skills gap."
A 2018 survey of tech companies in New York City, conducted by Accenture and Tech:NYC, found 83% were planning to increase hiring but only 50% were confident they could find workers with the right skills locally. A Tech:NYC poll of city residents from December 2021 found only 27% were confident there were well-paying jobs for New Yorkers without college degrees or technical skills. Eighty-four percent and 80%, respectively, felt the Department of Education needed to invest more in tech training and the city needs to offer more tech training, in general.
New York City has 75 funding mechanisms across 21 city agencies doing various forms of workforce development work, totaling $678 million in the 2021 fiscal year, according to a recent report by Invest in Skills New York City, a coalition of workforce training advocates. Roughly half of that is city dollars, with the rest coming from state, federal, and private sources, the report states. And while sizable, most of the money is used to subsidize wages and collateral support for students with only a small fraction going to job training.
Part of that funding supports the city's "Tech Talent Pipeline," a public-private partnership launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 to identify hiring needs of employers and developing training programs to meet them, working with more than 385 companies and 17 local colleges.
Mayor Adams has announced himself as a friend of both business and working-class New Yorkers. Since being elected he has established a "Corporate Council" of 60 business leaders from major corporations to inform policy-making and a plan to help small businesses navigate the city's often cumbersome regulations.
Central to Adams' vision is ensuring that New Yorkers from all communities can participate in the city's many economic sectors and have a chance at economic mobility. Along with quicker changes to the current workforce development ecosystem, he has also promised to overhaul the city's entire education system to improve experiences and outcomes for city students, especially Black and Latino youth often left behind, to the benefit of the city economy as well.
He fulfilled a campaign promise when, in December, he announced the appointment of a deputy mayor in charge of workforce development – Maria Torres-Springer, a veteran of city government who most recently served as a vice president of the Ford Foundation after stints at the helm of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Economic Development Corporation, and Department of Small Business Services. She is now Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development.
That coupling has been lauded by business leaders, workforce training providers, and urbanists who are seeking to align the city's jobs and labor markets across what has been described as a fragmented workforce development environment. Governor Kathy Hochul followed a similar model in her State of the State address last week, announcing a plan to fold the state's workforce efforts into the Empire State Development Corporation, among other labor market supports.
"What Mayor-elect Adams has said to all of us is that the work of economic recovery is not the work of one deputy mayor or one agency, this has to be a whole-of-government approach that will include getting New Yorkers back to work, getting New Yorkers back to work, and getting New Yorkers back to work," Torres-Springer said after Adams announced her appointment in December.
"If you're disconnecting workforce from economic development you're not necessarily prioritizing people as you grow communities and incentivize businesses to come to the city," said Jose Ortiz, Jr., CEO of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition (NYCETC), an association of job-readiness organizations, and co-lead of Adams' transition team’s committee on economic and workforce development.
"He could have structured workforce development in ways that would not necessarily have prioritized it in the most appropriate way," Ortiz added.
Even before the pandemic, severe gaps existed between the skills and training of many New Yorkers, particularly in underserved areas, and the qualifications many employers were seeking. Then as now, shrinking federal investment in workforce development and scattershot city and state funding meant only a patchwork of professional training programs were available to the 150,000 New Yorkers who were then unemployed, a disproportionate number in Black and Latino communities.
Then, the covid-spurred economic shutdown drove unemployment to record highs. After a partial comeback, over 350,000 New Yorkers are unemployed, more than double pre-pandemic levels. But not all sectors have fared the same and while some, like retail and food service, have been brought to the brink of collapse, others, like tech, healthcare, and advertising, have seen growth that exceeded trends before the pandemic. Industries with more accessible jobs – positions that require fewer formal credentials – that tend to employ lower-wage workers have suffered dramatic losses, particularly in retail, bars and restaurants, and hospitality.
That has raised concerns among economists and others who see a mismatch between the increasing number of well-paying jobs with the potential for career advancement and the training opportunities for and qualifications of much of the labor market. This is especially true in a city where the poverty rate remains at 18% and 42% of students who graduate high school were not deemed college- or career-ready in 2020 (the year for which the most recent data is available).
"The city is continuing to create well-paying jobs," said Eli Dvorkin, policy director at Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit think tank focused on economic opportunity. "But those jobs aren't accessible to a lot of New Yorkers."
"There's a huge gap between the qualifications for most of the job openings and the lack of credentials of most of the job applicants," said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit business association, and a member of Adams’ transition team. "That's the challenge that Eric recognizes and wants to resolve as quickly as possible with the help of employers."
The city has a number of exemplary training programs that set up job-seekers for jobs connected to good career prospects, according to Dvorkin. One of them is Per Scholas, a tech workforce training program based in the Bronx and Brooklyn, that works with employers to design programs geared to the demands of hiring companies. Another is NPower, which is focused more on more basic- and middle-skills jobs in tech. What makes a program good, Dvorkin said, is its relationship with employers and knowledge of the job market so that graduates are prepared for and connected to actual jobs.
But they each only serve a handful to hundreds of candidates a year and suffer from sparse and uncoordinated government funding. "Scaling what's working is the best thing the incoming mayor can do," he said.
Adams' workforce development plan centers around creating a one-stop-shop digital portal for companies posting job listings, training programs offering skill-building, and candidates seeking employment. It centers on an ambitious citywide, "data-oriented" "skills mapping" effort, in which information on local talent pools, businesses' desired qualifications, and local training and credentialing opportunities are aggregated at the City Council district level.
"Technology will help us make sure we're trending in the right direction and we're continually updating the needs of our employee pool and employers," Adams said at a mayoral candidate forum on workforce development last April.
Stakeholders say such a tool would make clear the gaps in the city's workforce development landscape and help employers, candidates, and training programs connect more efficiently. Adams has said the portal would be developed through public-private partnerships, relying on businesses to submit the skills they are seeking.
"We will then match workers to appropriate providers using local organizations and working with landlords with open storefronts to create service centers and outreach programs," reads Adams' campaign website.
"The technology, the platform, AI-enhanced, already exists," said Wylde, whose Partnership has been consulting with the incoming Adams administration on developing the platform. The Partnership has been eyeing a model by OneTen, an organization dedicated to Black employment, which is using a portal prototype with roughly 60 Fortune 500 companies participating. "It's not really as complicated as it may seem because people have been working on this and we're going to simply adapt their platform to New York City's needs," Wylde said of the potential proposal.
"The development of a technical tool is a necessity at this point," said Ortiz. He believes the portal should be carefully administered and overseen by city government, possibly in partnership with state and federal governments, because of its potential to significantly impact businesses, workers, and whole communities. "Maintaining that and ensuring that it's making it to the folks that need it the most can only be done effectively by a government agency," Ortiz said.
The current landscape is made up of private job websites, social media postings, school career services, nonprofit service providers, and some government-provided listings like through the city Department of Small Business Services' Workforce1 Career Centers, a training and employment initiative. Workforce1 Career Centers connected nearly 19,000 New Yorkers with jobs in Fiscal Year 2021 with an average hourly wage of $18.15, according to the Mayor's Management Report.
On the campaign trail, Adams also talked about the need for more internship and apprenticeships for young people, in part through public-private partnerships; for corporations to have a role in developing school curricula; and better coordination between employers, city high schools, and CUNY, the university system that is one of the premier pathways for lower-income New Yorkers to get into well-paying jobs. All belong to the themes of skilling up young New Yorkers and calibrating the talent pool to industry needs.
CUNY has already been the host of a number of city workforce readiness programs, including a five-year, $20-million program funded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Department of Small Business Services, “CUNY 2x Tech,” aimed at doubling the number of students graduating with degrees in tech.
During the campaign, Adams promised to make community colleges free and suggested establishing a crisis management task force to deliver services on the ground to young people that are both out of school and unemployed – a category that included roughly a quarter of New Yorkers aged 16 to 24, according to a city task force report from January. He also wants to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program and convert it into a year-round project.
Last year, Adams proposed adding a "life skills curriculum," including interview techniques and financial education, to public schools and make internship and externships universally available to high school students "to put those skills to work right away." He promised to expand vocational training for high school students in areas like manufacturing and a pipeline from those programs to employers.
For Wylde, creating more internships and apprenticeships for young New Yorkers is a far greater lift than establishing the hiring-skills portal. "To scale that to a level that's meaningful is going to take some real work," she said, noting the fewer than 5,000 paid high school internship opportunities in the city today. She said corporate employers who have gotten used to hiring from a glut of college graduates for entry-level positions will have to "change their criteria" – "a major culture change," she said.
Adams also supported creating a flexible city fund for workforce training and, at the April forum, said he would commit 10% of economic development funding to local workforce training and hiring initiatives, something NYCETC and other workforce providers have been pushing for.
"When we talk about rezoning, attached to that rezoning should be workforce development," Adams said at the candidate forum last April, referring to neighborhood development plans, or “rezonings,” that often center around new housing development. "When we talk about government subsidies going to different initiatives or attracting businesses here, attached to that should be also workforce development. Whenever we use taxpayer dollars to do something to subsidize or benefit...attached to that must be workforce development."
The statement is in line with a recent report from Center for an Urban Future and JobsFirstNYC, a workforce development organization focused on young people, calling on the city to comprehensively tie workforce support to rezonings. The report includes recommendations for city agencies to develop neighborhood-level workforce investment strategies in areas undergoing rezoning (and in areas not being eyed for zoning changes if they have above-average unemployment or poverty rates). The report also calls for fees for developers to go toward training funds, local hiring legislation at the state level, and 5,000 apprenticeships by 2025, among other goals.
According to Dvorkin, very few of the city-led rezoning efforts over the past few years have included investments in workforce development. When they have "they've happened very late in the process, they've rarely had real dollar amounts attached, and there's been almost no accountability for any kind of follow through," he said, adding, "But it doesn't have to be that way."
The first neighborhood rezoning under Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing plan, of parts of East New York in 2016, came with the commitment to bring 3,900 new jobs and money that would be used for a new job training site. The jobs have not arrived, as City Limits reported in November, but the training site has been completed.
In its latest policy agenda, NYCETC is pushing for an annual investment of $100 million into talent development and additional collateral support, like childcare and internet access. The group is also pushing for legislative changes, like requirements to hire locally, and systemic changes, like establishing a workforce development committee in the City Council with oversight over the relevant deputy mayor and agencies.
Experts say additional city funding could make a significant impact if used strategically. Federal funding for workforce development in New York City has dwindled over the past two decades, falling 14.5%, from $87.1 million in 2001 to $74.5 million in 2020, according to a Center for an Urban Future report. What government funding does exist is often not enough to fill the gap, the report states, and funding is disjointed across over 20 city agencies supporting workforce development programs in near isolation.
"Although we've got plenty of good programs operating in silos, there isn't any real overarching structure to be able to align those investments and push them all in the same direction," Dvorkin said. He said many of the best training programs don't bother applying for government funding because it is often woefully inadequate to cover their costs or come with too many restrictions. The lack of coordination among funding sources also makes it difficult for training providers to partner with one another to establish the kind of continuum that would connect basic skills training initiatives with higher-level credentialing and job-placement programs.
Bridge programs are an important part of that continuum. They teach the basic skills, like literacy and digital literacy, needed to get into more advanced and competitive job training and accreditation programs. "These are programs that can serve as an onramp into high quality workforce training programs," Dvorkin said, with a caution: coordinating the spectrum of training programs is paramount.
"Entry level courses alone can't actually connect all the way to employment," he said.