By Kieran K. Meadows
Dozens of jobseekers sized up the others seated in the packed waiting room of the city’s job training center in Brooklyn one recent Friday morning. Fifty people waited to see counselors, attend workshops and improve resumes. The bright blue walls and fancy logos offered a sense of a hope that, despite the city’s highest unemployment rate in 16 years, this center would connect them to a job.
With changes to the job placement system over the last six years, they might have a better chance than ever before.
“The focus has actually changed now,” said John Maul, the coordinator at the Brooklyn Workforce1 Center, one of the job development hubs found in each borough. “It’s more like, ‘Go out and find the companies and what their needs are, and then find the people to fill those. It’s a different perspective,” he said.
The workforce centers are the frontlines in a city that faces the most severe downturn in years. Job losses continue to mount; the jobless rate jumped to 10.3 percent in September and forecasts say it’s not likely to peak for at least another year.
It is against this bleak backdrop that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s overhaul of job development centers is being put to the test. Despite critics who say he hasn’t done enough, the mayor’s emphasis on building strong relationships with businesses that do the hiring—stressing placement over training—is seen as the reason for the overhaul’s success.
The change in focus was long overdue, according to David J. Fischer, the project director for workforce development and social policy at the Center for an Urban Future. “It’s crucial to get employers on board,” Fischer said. The mayor’s shift in focus “has been very good. It was absolutely the right decision,” he said.
Fischer believes that while Mayor Bloomberg deserves credit, it may be more because he overhauled a system that none of his predecessors took seriously.
Former Mayor Giuliani gave the federal money for job training in the ’90s to the Human Resources Administration for his controversial welfare reform programs. When Mayor Bloomberg took office in the middle of the 2001-03 recession, he moved the money to the Department of Employment.
But after the mayor realized that jobseekers needed more help with placement, he closed the employment department in 2003 and shifted its funds and primary responsibilities to the Department of Small Business Services and the Department of Youth and Community Development.
Through DSBS, the administration rebuilt credibility with the private sector—which had dismissed job-training programs as useless—and focused on employer demand.
Feedback from employers that have used the Workforce1 centers has been positive. In using the centers, they save time and cut costs because center staff pre-screen jobseekers and whittle down large applicant pools.
“The centers are filling a need, one that’s greatly needed,” said Onique Cummings, the hiring manager for Home Health Care Services of New York. Her company recently hired three new full-time employees through the center and expects to hire two more in the coming weeks. “I think it’s a great step, especially with unemployment rates being what they are,” she said.
DSBS’s close relationship with employers allowed the city to place 17,000 people in jobs last year, compared with only about 600 people in 2003, said Robert C. Lieber, the deputy mayor for economic development, who joined the administration in January 2008.
Lieber said he hopes to place 20,000 this year. “One of things we’re trying to do is develop specific programs that either approach the needs of the community or leverage off the businesses in the area,” he said.
In his Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan, the mayor says he will “expand job-training programs for laid-off workers.” But in order to follow through on this campaign promise while facing a budget crunch, he secured help from the Obama administration’s economic recovery act. The mayor announced in May that $32 million in federal funds would be used to extend the hours of Workforce1 centers and create new job-training programs.
Some of the federal money—about $5 million—has gone to fund training grants for those who wish to learn new skills or gain new certification. The demand for these training grants is very high. More than half of the people in the waiting room at the Brooklyn center Friday morning later attended a training grant information session.
Even though the mayor has taken steps to expand these programs, his most prominent critic, challenger and current Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., criticized Bloomberg in a report last year for not placing enough emphasis on skills training. More recently, in a speech in front of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, he proposed creating a Mayor’s Office of Skills Education to improve what he sees as an ineffective and inefficient workforce system under the mayor, saying it’s “uncoordinated and often at odds with itself.”
“There is more than a grain of truth in that criticism,” said Fischer, of the Center for an Urban Future. DSBS and DYCD don’t have a great history working together, he said. “That’s really where you need mayoral leadership.” While the mayor has encouraged his commissioners to be creative in the thinking within their agencies, “I don’t think he is focused on the need for coordination,” he said.
The question, Fischer said, is whether the comptroller’s plan would “continue to engage employers as vigorously and effectively as the Bloomberg administration has.” The Thompson campaign did not return numerous calls seeking comment.
Nonetheless, Thompson’s argument may resonate better with voters who find themselves out of work.
“As far as Bloomberg, he should know how to create jobs as a billionaire,” said Malik Pierce, 38, a construction worker who has been unemployed since March, as he stood outside the Brooklyn Workforce1 center. Brooklyn’s unemployment rate stood at 11.1 percent in August, according to the state Department of Labor. “I just don’t see where the jobs are being created,” Pierce said.