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When Mayor Bloomberg announced the first steps to be taken in his new $150 million antipoverty initiative last week, he skimmed over what could be one of its most ambitious components: A set of “career ladder” programs designed to take low-wage, entry-level workers in growth industries and help set them on the track to better jobs and the middle class.

“What we want to do is target those sectors where the entry-level jobs may not be institutionally connected to the next step up the rung,” Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs said at the event, “and give [workers] the skill building that’s necessary in order to qualify for those high level, better paying positions.” Gibbs added that the city would likely be focusing its efforts on health care and food manufacturing, though the programs would not be made public for another month or two.

Bloomberg’s announcement at the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union built on the September release of recommendations by his Commission on Economic Opportunity by creating a new Center for Economic Opportunity and committing $150 million annually to related programs.

Earlier this fall, city officials hinted they might plot a path from home health aide to nurse, both of which are rapidly growing professions. By 2012, the city is expected to need nearly 60,000 more home health care providers and registered nurses. But even with growing demand, moving workers from one profession to the other is aiming pretty high, said Carol Rodat, the New York director for the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, an advocacy group for direct-care workers.

“There are many steps in between a home health aide, an LPN and an RN, and the majority of people are not going to become RNs or LPNs,” said Rodat. Indeed, nearly 60 percent of home health aides do not have a high school diploma, a prerequisite for becoming a nurse, according to a recent report done by Rodat’s group for the city’s Workforce Investment Board.

The bigger surprise was the city’s announcement that it would also be targeting food manufacturing, which has a far lower local profile than health care. Nonetheless, it’s generating plenty of jobs, said Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network, a local economic development group. Since 1999, the number of New Yorkers working in food manufacturing has jumped from roughly 15,000 to 19,200, an increase of about 28 percent, with an average annual wage of $32,000, according to research done by NYIRN.

What’s more, if last week’s press conference was any indication, the plan, if successful, will have at least one friend in a high place: U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel. Expected to chair the House’s powerful Ways and Means committee, which oversees much of the feds’ antipoverty spending, the Democrat from Harlem jovially stood at Bloomberg’s side for the duration of the mayor’s speech. “I promise in Washington to pull those levers,” Rangel said. “Not only to support [your efforts] here, but to be able to support the other mayors as they fight the problems that we have with poverty.”

– Tracie McMillan

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