During his State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated his administration’s commitment to making New York what he called “the fairest big city in America.” Amidst his 10-point plan to achieve this goal was the promise to help New Yorkers get good, middle-class jobs: “As this city has become more prosperous, we have more jobs than at any other time in our history, right at this moment in this city. But we need to get better-paying jobs in the hands of New Yorkers.”
Indeed, while the basic vital signs of our city have pointed due north for some time now, for the 800,000 New Yorkers living below the poverty line, the “tale of two cities” that Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned against continues to persist. Unless the mayor and New York City Council prioritize tangible investments in job training and skill development for New Yorkers currently left out of the growing economy, the disparities will only become starker.
The plan for tackling this issue already exists: Career Pathways is the de Blasio administration’s 2014 blueprint for workforce development designed to reorient its employment and training systems towards expanding jobseeker’s skills and providing high-quality job opportunities for all. The lackluster execution of this blueprint over the Mayor’s first term has meant New Yorkers living in poverty have been missing out on a real opportunity to rise into the middle class. Implementing it in this new term is vital if Mayor de Blasio is to leave behind the legacy of enhanced equity that he so desires.
Developed by a wide array of employers, educators, and workforce development leaders, Career Pathways is comprehensive. It centers on helping jobseekers and workers cultivate the skills required to enter and thrive in an increasingly competitive labor market that demands lifelong learning. It also focuses on creating a continuum of programs and services to help a person at any skill level enhance their employability and achieve a high-quality career whether they be at a 6th grade reading level or in possession of a bachelor’s degree.
One of Career Pathways’ central recommendations involves the scaling up of Bridge programs through an annual investment of $60 million by 2020. Bridge programs act as on-ramps to the workforce system. They provide remedial education to individuals with very limited skills so that they can qualify for and successfully participate in advanced job training programs which typically require at least an eighth-grade reading level. Investing in Bridge programs would help expand access to the workforce system for individuals facing the greatest barriers to employment. But four years later, the city is woefully behind, allocating a mere $7 million in each of the last two budget years.
Meanwhile, the need for these programs remains dire, with 1.7 million New Yorkers continuing to struggle with Limited English Proficiency and thousands more with unmet educational needs.
If the administration truly cares about serving this population, they must achieve the $60 million annual target through a rapid ramping-up of Bridge programs that are funded through the NYC Economic Development Corporation, CUNY, the Department of Youth and Childhood Development, Human Resources Administration and Small Business Services (SBS). Doing so is essential for New Yorkers currently shut out of high-quality careers.
On the other end of the continuum of services envisioned by Career Pathways is the city’s Workforce1 system, which is managed by SBS and serves jobseekers who visit one of the city’s employment centers across the five boroughs. It connects them to job openings at a variety of employer partners. Since 2014, SBS has shifted its policy to only provide free recruitment services to employers that offer jobs paying at least $13.40 an hour or guarantee full-time employment. This reflects a sliver of the Mayor’s interest in tackling income inequality. However it also means these jobs are now more competitive and jobseekers vying for them require higher skills and credentials than before. As a result the Workforce1 system skews towards “creaming,” placing the best-prepared jobseekers in jobs they likely would have gotten without city help, while failing to advance the low-skill and low-income New Yorkers central to Career Pathways’ mission.
To really make New York the “fairest big city” in America, Mayor de Blasio needs to change the culture of his public workforce system to one geared towards the individuals in real need of public support to land gainful careers - such as the long-term unemployed, individuals with disabilities, English-language learners, young people who are out of school and out of work, and those affected by the justice system. As the city’s primary portal for jobseekers and a central component of Career Pathways, SBS should measure its success by how many of these individuals they are able to place in decent jobs – not just by how many job vacancies are filled.
Equipped with a second term and a citywide appetite for political leadership that tackles the roots of economic inequality, Mayor de Blasio along with the City Council has a strong opportunity to transform cycles of poverty into pathways of equity and prosperity. Bolstered by new members and Speaker Corey Johnson’s leadership, the City Council can truly help struggling New Yorkers. It can hold the Mayor accountable to his own plan for improving the workforce development system to address our city’s stark income inequality problem by empowering low-income communities with skills and credentials employers seek. But unless words are matched by dollars, New Yorkers with the lowest skills and largest barriers to employment will continue to be effectively shut out of the system and the city's job market.
Annie Garneva, is director of communications and member services at the NYC Employment and Training Coalition. She works with the Coalition’s over 180 members and partners to improve policy, practice and outcomes for New York City’s workforce development field.