On Thursday, December 9, WPTI hosted a briefing in conjunction with the release of our most recent Voices from the Frontline repot, Navigating Uncertain Waters: NYC Workforce Professionals in the Age of COVID-19. The session featured an exploration of the report’s findings, as well as a panel discussion with leaders and practitioners from across New York City’s workforce development community, and a presentation by, Evelyn Ortiz, Deputy Director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals (NYATEP) on the Statewide Workforce Equity Analysis Tool (SWEAT), NYATEP’s brand new survey of workforce development boards and other workforce leaders focused on issues of racial equity and inclusion at the highest levels of workforce organizations across the state.
Setting the Stakes
The session was introduced by Sharon Sewell-Fairman, WPTI’s CEO, who laid out how COVID-19 has exacerbated structural challenges facing New York City’s workforce development sector, and the professionals providing key workforce services to unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers. She referenced the Great Resignation, which has not spared our sector, as workforce development providers face the challenge of talent attrition, as individuals have left for other fields promising higher paychecks, greater resources, and lower levels of stress.
The introduction was followed by a detailed presentation on the findings revealed in Navigating Uncertain Waters. Co-authors Lina K. Moe of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School and Justin Collins of WPTI walked through key findings regarding the impact of COVID-19 on workforce development professionals. Some notable takeaways include:
- Respondents reported challenges and pressures related to pay and financial security, with less than half indicating that their current take-home pay is sufficient to cover basic living expenses, and approximately 1/3 indicating that their current pay allows them to save money. These financial pressures are not felt equally across gender lines, with women reporting significantly higher financial pressures than their male counterparts. In fact, 70 percent of women indicated their current salary does not allow them to save money, and 71 percent felt they could not cover an unanticipated expense (as compared to 42 percent of male respondents). Furthermore, more than half of respondents said that worries about financial challenges interrupted their focus on work.
- In addition to pay-related stresses, respondents indicated concerns regarding job security, with 38 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement “I worry I could be laid off from my job within the next year.” This correlates with the financial challenges faced by many nonprofit organizations in the wake of COVID-19, which has led to furloughs, layoffs, and even agency closures.
- Respondents also expressed tensions related to serving jobseekers and meeting required outcomes and metrics in a struggling economy. They reported providing additional services to meet emerging client needs in areas like mental health and housing, and referred to dilemmas regarding the possibility of placing jobseekers into in-person jobs that could pose a safety risk while COVID-19 was spreading.
- Ultimately, the report reveals a workforce that is deeply dedicated to its clients and to the critical work of workforce development, but due to financial pressures, job insecurity, and an increasingly stressful work environment with little support, we run the risk of severe attrition and loss of talent, which could ultimately lessen the impact of workforce development providers and the broader workforce system at a time when they are needed more than ever.
- Many of the challenges reported by respondents to WPTI and CNYCA’s 2021 Survey of NYC Frontline Workforce Professionals echoed those reported in response to our pre-pandemic 2020 survey, indicating structural problems that existed across New York City’s workforce development system prior to COVID-19. However, the pandemic and resulting economic crisis exacerbated these challenges and created new stressors on workforce professionals throughout 2020 and 2021.
To learn more about our findings, please read Navigating Uncertain Waters: NYC Frontline Workforce Professionals in the Age of COVID-19.
NYATEP’s SWEAT Scan
Following this exploration of the data from WPTI’s recent report, Evelyn Ortiz of NYATEP introduced her organizations’ Statewide Workforce Equity Analysis Tool, also known as the SWEAT Scan, or SWEAT. This new survey is designed to examine workforce development boards and other key workforce organizations across the State of New York to assess the field’s leadership with regard to racial equity, based upon the understanding that the workforce system disproportionately works with communities of color, and frequently employs people of color, but this diversity is often absent at leadership levels. As a prime example of this, of 33 workforce boards across New York, which collectively manage $400 million in resources, there are only 3 led by people of color. Ultimately, SWEAT will serve to examine equity gaps in the field with regard to leadership and advancement, while elevating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts that have been successful.
To learn more about SWEAT, visit NYATEP’s website.
Reflections from the Field
The event continued with a panel consisting of leaders from New York City’s workforce field, along with an expert in mental health in the workplace, reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce system, the workplace more generally, and the professionals serving New York City’s jobseekers.
- Rasheeda Edmonds – Director of SYEP, United Activities Unlimited
- Christopher Lynn-Logue – Senior Manager, Partnerships, NYC Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health
- Natalie Martinez – Director of Workforce Development, HANAC, Inc.
- Evelyn Ortiz – Deputy Director, NYATEP
Christopher Lynn-Logue of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Community Mental health focuses heavily on workplace mental health and wellness. He reflected on the rapid shift to remote work in the wake of COVID-19, and how this shift impacted both service providers and recipients of workforce services. Throughout the pandemic, his office has worked with employers, including human services organizations, to help them understand the collective trauma faced by their staff and implement policies and practices that can advance mental health support at work. The Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health also created a series of free resources, available online HERE.
Evelyn Ortiz of NYATEP discussed NYATEP’s statewide response to the pandemic, and their work with field leaders to develop A New Way Forward, a report issued in September 2020 to provide recommendations to policymakers. Most notably, Evelyn stressed the importance of focusing on long-term, structural solutions, rather than new, short-term programs. New York needs to invest in its workforce system, especially in professional development and other supports, to rebuild the fundamentals of the system and better meet the needs of workers in a changing economy.
Natalie Martinez of HANAC, Inc. spoke of layoffs in the immediate wake of COVID, as well as technology challenges as workers adapted to working and serving jobseekers remotely. She also expressed a need for better, more centralized information sharing, in order to meet the needs of a sector quickly adapting to new circumstances.
Rasheeda Edmonds of United Activities Unlimited leads Summer Youth Employment (SYEP) programming at her organization, and reflected on the significant changes to the SYEP model in the 20 months since COVID’s arrival in New York City. The NYC Department of Youth and Community Development cut SYEP significantly in 2020, before bringing the program back in 2021 using an increasingly virtual and project-based model. Organizations frequently had to advocate for additional support as they pivoted to this new hybrid model, in order to meet the needs of their clients.
The panelists spoke of the need for improved mental health supports for frontline workforce professionals, and encouraged the incoming mayoral administration to listen to the perspectives of practitioners and low-income jobseekers when implementing workforce policies, especially given the importance of this work in the city’s journey toward an equitable economic recovery.
Ultimately, Navigating Uncertain Waters and the briefing that followed laid out some of the major impacts on the workforce field caused by COVID-19, as well as potential avenues to improve conditions for workforce professionals and services for jobseekers. In the coming weeks, we look forward to releasing a series of recommendations, aimed at policymakers, workforce leaders, and other stakeholders that can ultimately strengthen the workforce system to better support its frontline staff, reduce talent attrition, and ultimately better meet the needs of a city working to regain its economic footing and emerge stronger.