The first comprehensive assessment of the Bloomberg administration’s five-year effort to improve city workforce development policy and programs, the new report “Work in Progress” documents many instances where this social service sector is delivering results. But it also notes obstacles such as a lack of coordination, limited scope, and millions less in federal funding. The report, by the Center for an Urban Future, City Limits’ sister think tank, is the culmination of nearly two years of research, including more than 100 interviews with city officials, providers, employers, and jobseekers.

Here is an excerpt:

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in January 2002, the city’s workforce development system was in near complete disarray. Jobseekers and employers alike had little confidence in – or even awareness of – the system. And Bloomberg’s predecessor at City Hall hadn’t shown much interest in making things better: The Giuliani administration had let tens of millions of dollars for workforce services pile up, unspent.

The deficiencies were in plain sight in the months after the September 11 terrorist attack, when the city had virtually no capacity to provide employment services to the thousands of New Yorkers who had lost their jobs as a result of the tragedy and the subsequent slide in the city’s economy. The city had just one federally mandated center offering “one-stop” employment services to the city’s eight million residents – and it was located in Jamaica, Queens, an hour by subway from stricken lower Manhattan. By contrast, Los Angeles had 36. The city’s Workforce Investment Board (WIB), a federally mandated entity that has nominal oversight over workforce programs in every municipality, was demoralized and isolated from the private sector. Local and national opponents of government-supported workforce programs pointed to New York City as proof of their uselessness…

The gains made thus far have been impressive … Many of the improvements spring from Mayor Bloomberg’s 2003 decision to shift responsibility for adult workforce development services to the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS), an agency whose primary mission is to serve the needs of businesses. The move signaled a major philosophical change in direction, and demonstrated a newfound commitment to serving both employers and jobseekers. For many years prior to the shift, workforce programs in New York and most everywhere else had focused on addressing the perceived needs of those who sought work while ignoring the types of jobs companies had to fill.

The shift to SBS fundamentally altered those perceptions. It also laid the groundwork for a series of meaningful achievements. There are now seven “one-stop” employment facilities, now known as Workforce1 Career Centers, around the five boroughs—up from one when Mayor Bloomberg took office.

Another important change is that the city is now focusing its workforce services where the jobs are. The Workforce1 Career Centers regularly partner with large employers in each borough that have recurring hiring needs, including Time Warner, Fresh Direct, JetBlue and Washington Mutual. SBS also routinely connects workforce services to city-backed economic development projects, a linkage that might seem glaringly obvious, but that never had occurred before.

SBS is also attempting to tailor workforce services towards industries that are expected to achieve significant growth in the years ahead. For instance, the agency developed an unprecedented public-private partnership with a consortium of foundations, called the New York City Sector Initiative, which invests both public and private money in training for careers in the health care and biotechnology industries.

The administration has also registered modest improvements in the difficult area of youth workforce services. For instance, DYCD has made significant progress with its Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a city- and state-funded effort that places over 40,000 young New Yorkers in short-term jobs every summer, and added two new youth employment programs as a next tier for successful SYEP participants.

Perhaps most significant, there is a sense that, for the first time, issues of workforce development command the attention of the mayor and top city leaders. Indeed, workforce programs are a key part of Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious plan to dramatically reduce poverty in New York City by implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Economic Opportunity (CEO), the high-profile anti-poverty task force that the mayor convened in 2006. Nearly $15 million of city tax levy funds will support the commission’s workforce- related initiatives set to launch in 2007.

All this said, much more needs to be done.

The city is still nowhere close to its goal of a holistic workforce development system that serves all city jobseekers, workers and employers, and is fully aligned and integrated with New York’s economic development priorities. A serious lack of coordination persists among the various city agencies and other stakeholders responsible for workforce services. While the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) calls for integration of all agencies and programs into a seamless continuum of services, the reality on the ground in New York City is much closer to “every agency for itself.” …The absence of coordination has meant overlap and duplication of some services, while other major needs have gone practically unaddressed. Only a tiny fraction of the city’s approximately 200,000 disconnected youth – young people who are neither in school nor working – are getting assistance. The same is true for adults who are either out of work or in poverty-wage jobs.

New York City’s operational problems are compounded by an ever-shrinking federal budget for workforce development that provides far too little funding to adequately address the full potential demand for services. The trend of federal disinvestment in the workforce system, discernable since the mid-1980s, has greatly accelerated in recent years. …These cuts have ensured that the city’s workforce system lacks the staff and funding to serve the vast majority of New Yorkers in need of job assistance.

The want of greater capacity is matched by an unduly limited vision on the city’s part of what workforce development should entail. While New York has gotten much better at placing jobseekers into employment, service providers have only begun to pursue the more difficult tasks of ensuring that customers stay in their jobs and move toward career-track employment with family-supporting pay. At the same time, providers are struggling to serve those who come to the Workforce1 Career Centers with serious barriers to employment, such as low skill levels, little or no work experience, or health issues. Non-English speakers report particular dissatisfaction with the services offered in the centers.

Finally, while its performance has dramatically improved in the last few years, the WIB still is not providing the leadership necessary for the system to reach its full potential. Critics charge that the WIB remains an appendage of city government rather than an independent entity setting priorities and exercising oversight as the WIA legislation prescribes.

– David Jason Fischer