(photo: LaGuardia Community College, CUNY)
With Amazon’s pronouncement to put the brakes on its plan to bring part of its new headquarters to Long Island City, it’s time to make lemonade out of the many lemons left in the wake.
Amazon’s decision to locate here centered on our city’s ability to get the company the talent it needs to grow. It’s what every company, large and small, needs to thrive.
When Amazon first announced it was coming, one of the first questions raised was: who will benefit? Would the 25,000 jobs help our local community, including the residents of Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing complex, and LaGuardia Community College, where more than 70% of students come from households with incomes of less than $30,000? What kinds of jobs would be open to someone with just a high school diploma, an associate’s, a bachelor’s? Would it be New Yorkers who benefitted, or people recruited from elsewhere in the country and the world?
In my engagement with City, State, and Amazon representatives, it became clear to me that New York (and conceivably many localities) needs a stronger, integrated system that links private and public spheres to educate future employees. Amazon’s proposed campus in Long Island City highlighted the need for that more robust, sustained development of talent pipelines in the fundamental field of tech, especially for people in low-income communities.
The first step is more employers willing to establish long-term partnerships with local colleges and universities so there’s clear understanding of the technical, intellectual, and practical skills needed for job-openings. Without strong employer partnerships, we can’t be certain that our students will be job-ready upon graduation.
We need more companies, especially tech companies, willing to invest in developing local talent by providing paid internships and mentorship opportunities for nontraditional and traditional students alike. We need more collaborations to create job-specific training programs, like one we have with Google to provide training in IT support.
Without far-reaching programs that connect students who are older, poor, or speak English less than well, tech employers will continue relying on the same private and elite-college networks for hiring.
Fledgling progress was being made with Amazon to create pathways to jobs. At the end of January, Amazon announced a collaboration with LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, and SUNY to create a program to train people (with at least a high school diploma) for jobs in cloud computing.
But more than programs, public officials, employers, and educators must convene and nurture the building of an ecosystem that connects the many assets a community can use to establish a collaborative approach. If a community can encircle a potential employee with support and education, and companies can create bona fide paths to employment, there is no limit to the amount of social mobility and community vibrancy that can be created.
LaGuardia Community College knows how well employer-education partnerships can work when it all comes together. Queens resident Matt O’Connor was working full-time packing boxes at a nearby delivery service when he came to LaGuardia to channel his passion for coding. He was offered internship opportunities that grounded his classroom work. Matt first interned at the tech accelerator Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, where he worked with small tech start-ups. His next paid software development internship was at Place Pixel, a company that creates next-generation mapping experiences. It went so well that he was offered a full-time job with an equity share in the company. Matt said it felt miraculous when he was able to quit the package delivery company. Today, he’s a full-time software engineer at the company SevenFifty.
But with better and more targeted resources, we can do even more. We need elected officials to step up and increase the investment in our public colleges: to give us the resources to re-imagine what and how we teach. We need to be able to hire and support full-time faculty who can effectively teach complex material, particularly to a diverse student body. We need the funding to support the collaboration across organizational silos. It’s not just the funding for expanding holistic support like child care, and philanthropy to support transportation, emergency funds, and an on-campus food pantry. It’s also dedicated funding to link the path from the housing projects to training, and from training to college.
Over the coming weeks and months, there will be much analysis of what went right or wrong with the Amazon deal. No matter who declares victory, what Long Island City is left with does little for the low-income and aspiring New Yorkers who remain on the sidelines. Let’s not lose a moment in getting our talent prepared for whatever happens next, whether it’s the next Amazon wanting to locate here or the start-up just beginning to get launched.
Whether you are cheering or bemoaning the crumbling of the agreement, we can all agree those who’ve been historically locked out of job opportunities in the fastest growing industries need more pathways to these good, steady jobs that enable them to provide for themselves and their families.
Gail O. Mellow is President of LaGuardia Community College. On Twitter @LaGuardiaCC.