New York’s economy is in flux. The past decade has seen a continued decline in manufacturing employment and uncertainty in the retail sector, combined with strong job growth in hospitality, health care, construction and tech. The questions are whether public and private institutions have adjusted to these changes, and whether city residents have the skills that fit the positions the economy is creating.
“The rapidly transforming labor market of the 21st century is making obsolete traditional ways of training and educating,” the Center for an Urban Future, a leading think tank, warned in a 2016 report. Of particular concern are those who do not complete high school or a four-year degree and “end up taking low-wage jobs in retail or food service without considering their options for advancement.”
Both the city and the state have sought to channel the labor pool in order to meet market currents. In 2014 Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Career Pathways program, which sought to better connect and coordinate youth and the unemployed with city programs, business owners, unions and nonprofits—which CUF lauded for refocusing public efforts from rapid job placement to long-term career planning and advancement.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, announced his own Workforce Development Initiative four years later. As with Career Pathways, the state program emphasizes communication and cooperation between the public and private sectors to ensure that workers get training for the specific posts employers aim to fill.
The elephant in the room, of course, is automation. But some evidence suggests that anxieties about robots taking over the workplace—anxieties de Blasio stoked as a presidential candidate—are overblown. A 2018 CUF report found New York’s particular abundance of “social, cognitive and technical” positions would shield its economy from the sort of apocalyptic layoffs some futurists predict.
“Technology is still anticipated to create more jobs than it displaces,” the report read. “In many cases, automation will require humans to work more closely with machines, rather than be replaced by them.”
Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying that human labor remains indispensable to the fastest-growing fields. “You can’t take the people aspect out of health care, for the most part,” he said. “You can’t take the people aspect out of the skilled trades.”
Workforce development has been a politically popular solution to employment woes since the 1980s, economist Gordon Lafer, a former adviser to Mayor Ed Koch, noted in his 2002 book, The Job Training Charade. Lafer said job-training programs are a political distraction from what he deems the real causes of unemployment and poverty: anemic job growth, a low minimum wage and the decline of organized labor.
New York City, however, recently has seen strong job creation and substantial increases in the minimum wage. It also has one of the highest unionization rates in the nation.
CUF faulted Career Pathways for failing to reach all public school students and for insufficiently coordinating with the CUNY system, which the governor controls. And Cuomo’s Workforce Development Initiative is run through his Regional Economic Development Councils, which have allocated more funding upstate and on Long Island than to the five boroughs.
Peers, for his part, says the most important kind of workforce development is in what he describes as core competencies useful both in personal and professional life: emotional intelligence, critical thinking, conflict resolution and financial literacy.