Reflections on WPTI’s Employer Symposium Series

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in New York City and left an economic crisis in its wake, which will impact our economy and the labor market for at least the next five years. The economic devastation impacted numerous industries in a range of ways. In some fields, workers deemed essential had to risk exposure to a deadly disease as they continued working on-site, whether as grocery workers, nurses, first responders or pharmacy technicians. Hundreds of thousands of others, working in restaurants, hotels or clothing and furniture stores lost jobs, facing unemployment in an uncertain job market. These workers potentially need to reskill and shift their career path in order to remain afloat. Many of the lucky New Yorkers that were able to keep their jobs immediately shifted to a remote or virtual work environment, and had to quickly adapt or learn new skills in an increasingly technology-driven world of work.

It is in this increasingly digital work environment, and unstable job market, that Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI) joined with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) to host a series of employer symposiums, devoted to several key sectors that make up New York City’s economy. The series included sessions on:

  • Retail
  • Hospitality (Restaurants and Hotels)
  • Healthcare
  • Tech
  • Construction and Manufacturing

The series ran monthly, from October 2020 through March 2021, and featured labor market presentations by economist Dr. James Parrott of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, as well as panels of employers, advocates, unions, training providers, and other key stakeholders. Ultimately, the goal was to share with workforce development professionals helpful and timely information on how to best engage employers and serve jobseekers in this changed world. The series was attended by 273 individuals, representing 135 organizations across eight states. 54 panelists, representing 52 organizations – mostly employers – participated.

Throughout the series, Dr. Parrott laid out key data on New York City’s economy – both the trajectory of the job market over the past several years and the impact of COVID-19 across multiple sectors, and panelists – representing employers, organized labor, and workforce providers – shared resources and practical information gleaned from their daily experience working in this changed environment. Recaps of our five sessions are included below:

Retail

Our October 2020 conversation on the retail sector featured panelists from CVS Health and The Gap, as well as local businesses such as Sahadi’s, Uncommon Goods, and others. Retail is a particularly important sector for the workforce development community and the jobseekers it serves, as it accounts for more than one in seven of New York City’s entry-level jobs.  Panelists discussed a general shift toward e-commerce and away from brick-and-mortar in the wake of COVID-19, with the exception of essential businesses like supermarkets and pharmacies. This was supported by data shared by Dr. Parrott, revealing that job losses in retail have been uneven, with job losses primarily concentrated among clothing and furniture stores, as brick-and-mortar businesses closed and consumers “tightened purse strings.” Meanwhile, essential retail, such as pharmacies and supermarkets, remained strong, in some cases increasing their hiring to meet the rising consumer demand. E-commerce also grew, as consumers shifted their retail shopping to online platforms.

Both the panelists and Dr. Parrott focused on an increased need for digital fluency among retail workers, with increasing use of tablets and other technology in recent years. In addition, employers are placing an even greater emphasis on cleanliness and safety, in order to ensure that both workers and customers are not exposed to pathogens like COVID-19. As the sector begins to recover, retail employers are looking to work closely with workforce providers on hiring, as staffing is both costly and time-consuming. Effective provider-employer relationships can create workforce development programming based on real employer needs and ensure a pipeline of qualified candidates. For more information on this first symposium, please see this article on WPTI’s website.

Hospitality

In November 2020, WPTI hosted our second symposium, focused on the hospitality sector – specifically restaurants and hotels. Panelists included representatives from the Marriott Marquis, several local restaurants, and representatives from the Hotel Trades Council and Restaurant Opportunities Center – United (ROC-United). Unlike the retail sector, which faced challenges due to COVID-19 but was still surviving (albeit with a shift toward e-commerce), the hospitality sector was absolutely decimated by the pandemic with thousands of New York City hotels and restaurants shut down, many permanently.

According to Dr. Parrott and Fred Dixon, President and CEO of NYC & Company, the City’s official tourism agency, more than 66 million tourists visited New York City in 2019, contributing $40 billion to the local economy. Prior to COVID-19, the city’s hospitality sector included 18,000 restaurants, 2,500 coffee shops, 1,500 bars, and 900 hotels. At the beginning of 2020, approximately 400,000 New Yorkers worked in this sector, with 80 percent being people of color and 60 percent being immigrants. However, in the wake of COVID-19, hospitality jobs in the city decreased by 42 percent – with a particular impact on immigrant workers and workers of color. Tourism numbers are not expected to return to their 2019 level for at least five years.

Much of the session focused on the need to reskill the thousands of hospitality workers displaced by the pandemic, as well as significant changes for workers still employed in hospitality professionals – including needs for personal protective equipment, increased digitization of work, and more. While many hotels and restaurants in tourist areas like Midtown Manhattan faced an overwhelming drop in business, some restaurants in other areas were able to pivot to largely takeout and delivery-driven businesses. As a result, these restaurants have shifted their hiring focus to delivery workers.

In the months since the pandemic, with restrictions eased on social gatherings and indoor dining, these sectors have slowly begun to recover, but challenges remain, due to months of lost business, reduced capacity, and a changed labor market. In this environment, employers are eager to work with workforce providers as they begin to re-hire. To learn more about this session, please read the recap on our website.

Healthcare

The impact of COVID-19 on New York City’s healthcare sector, the focus of our January symposium, was quite different than its effect on the retail and hospitality sectors. New York City’s healthcare sector accounts for more than 650,000 workers, accounting for more than 14 percent of all payroll workers citywide, with more than 33 percent working in home healthcare services and 20 percent in ambulatory or outpatient care. It is a sector that has grown significantly in recent years, with 192,000 private payroll jobs added since 2010 – primarily in home healthcare and ambulatory care. It’s also largely made up of women and workers of color, with immigrants representing 57 percent of workers in the sector.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, the issues facing the healthcare field have been different than those facing the sectors previously discussed. Healthcare has not seen significant job losses, but instead has faced issues related to worker health and safety, along with long hours, trauma, and burnout, as many healthcare workers have been directly on the frontlines of the pandemic.

In spite of these challenges, the healthcare sector does offer real opportunities for workforce providers and the jobseekers they support. According to both Dr. Parrott and panelists representing major hospital systems, private healthcare employers, and organized labor, the healthcare field faces an urgent need for workers with particular skill sets, including respiratory therapists, EMTs and paramedics, pharmacy technicians certified nursing assistants (CNAs), and home health aides. Furthermore, healthcare offers unique opportunities for advancement – both professionally and economically. Representatives of Northwell Health and 1199SEIU Training and Education Fund discussed entry-level jobs, particularly those that require less than a college degree. They also informed the audience of advancement opportunities, as well as the professional development and educational benefits offered by both Northwell and 1199 that allow for pathways into management, administration, or higher-paying healthcare professions. To learn more, read WPTI’s recap here.

Technology

February’s session addressed the tech industry, a growing force in New York City’s economy. Since 2008, the tech sector has added 150-200,000 jobs citywide, accounting for 370,000 payroll jobs, representing 8.3 percent of all such NYC jobs, in 2020. In spite of its size, the sector has faced challenges with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as the sector remains largely male, white, and Asian, with a dearth of Black and Latinx workers, especially when compared to the demographics of New York City. Workforce efforts in New York City have increasingly looked to this rapidly-growing sector as a possible source for both entry-level jobs and career pathway opportunities, due to both the sector’s pace of growth and the availability of high-paying positions that do not require a college degree.

Panelists included representatives of multiple tech employers, best-in-class tech training provider Per Scholas, and Louise Spence of Columbia University, a technology worker and business analyst, who entered into her tech career without a college degree and advanced rapidly into a managerial role. The panel discussed the sector’s growing focus on increasing diversity among its ranks, which creates opportunities for workforce providers to engage employers, build relationships, and connect jobseekers with internships and jobs. Furthermore, panelists emphasized the role of remote work in the post-COVID-19 era, wherein employers now have the ability to hire workers regardless of where they reside. This has created opportunities for workers to pursue positions at companies outside of New York City, which may not have been possible in the past.

Ms. Spence shared her experience entering into the technology field, where she started in a data entry role and, using a combination of free online resources and on-the-job training, advanced into increasingly technology-driven roles. She also remarked that her non-tech background was actually an asset in her current role, as she is able to speak the language of both “techies” and non-tech workers, and serve as a translator on jobs where both sets of workers need to collaborate. She also shared helpful resources for job seekers interested in tech careers – including  free e-learning websites like Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, and Trailhead (by Salesforce), as well as apps offering templates and other tools, such as Lucidchart and Smartdraw. To learn more and see more resources, visit our website.

Construction and Manufacturing

Our final session, in March 2021, focused on the construction and manufacturing fields. Construction and manufacturing are two distinct sectors with distinct histories and hiring patterns. Construction has boomed in recent years, due to major residential and commercial development projects in all five boroughs that created thousands of jobs. Manufacturing has slowly declined in New York City over the past several decades, but still offers thousands of family-sustaining jobs. In the wake of COVID-19, both sectors have faced job losses, but in smaller numbers than the hospitality or retail sectors.

Construction is a relatively high-wage field, with average wages of $70,000 – especially considering most of these jobs do not require a college degree. It contains both union and non-union positions, with union jobs generally offering higher pay and better benefits but requiring a longer pathway to entry than their non-union counterparts, which can hire almost immediately. In recent years, the building trades unions have increased their focus on racial and gender diversity, working closely with pre-apprenticeship programs that provide more workers with access to union apprenticeships.

Meanwhile, manufacturing is a small but diversified sector, with many small manufacturers producing food, garments, electronics, jewelry, and more – right here in New York City. Many manufacturing jobs start at or are close to minimum wage, but there frequently exist opportunities for advancement within companies. While the sector has seen a decline in jobs in recent years, its workforce is aging, which creates opportunities for new workers interested in manufacturing careers.

The session featured two panels – one focused on construction and the other on manufacturing.  During the first panel, Amanda Kogut-Rosenau of construction training provider Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), Glenn Hilzen of construction job placement provider Building Skills NY, and Donald Ranshte of the Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA) discussed several of the key certifications and qualifications that are particularly helpful for workers seeking positions in the construction industry – including completion of a 30-hour OSHA safety training as well as flagger and scaffolding certifications. In addition, panelists shared key attributes of successful construction workers – including timeliness, flexibility, communication skills, and a level of comfort with both math and reading. Other construction panelists spoke of the increasing digitization of the field, including increased use of software and 3D modeling. As a result, digital skills are becoming more important for workers looking to enter construction careers.

Manufacturing panelists echoed the increased need for digital skills, as well as flexibility and a desire to learn new skills. They also emphasized the fact that manufacturing companies don’t only employ manufacturing workers, as they also hire for a wide range of administrative, marketing, and other positions. As a result, the manufacturing sector offers a range of opportunities.

To learn more about this session, read our recap here.

Conclusion and Next Steps

WPTI’s Employer Symposium Series was designed to help workforce development providers better understand the challenges facing employers in a pandemic-impacted environment, as well as current hiring needs and engagement strategies. Following the sessions, attendees spoke of the “real, practical insight” offered by panelists and Dr. Parrott, as well as the “candor, authenticity, and diversity of panelists.” Participants appreciated the resources shared by panelists, as well as information on available jobs. The vast majority of panelists shared contact information with attendees, and expressed an interest in engaging more deeply with providers in the audience, including participation in virtual job fairs. At a time when workforce professionals were struggling to find real opportunities for their jobseekers – including workers displaced by the pandemic – the Employer Symposium Series was designed to serve as a lifeline, offering direct access to employers as well as information.

While the Employer Symposium Series has reached its conclusion, it is only the first step in WPTI’s work to help workforce development providers strengthen their employer engagement strategies in the current job market. WPTI has recently began recruitment efforts for our  Business Engagement Learning Lab (BELL), which builds upon the success of the symposiums, as well as WPTI’s longstanding Job Developers Learning Group (JDLG) to offer a rigorous cohort-based training program designed to equip and empower workforce programs with advanced employer engagement strategies, techniques, and operational skills. Using a team-based approach, in which organizations select multiple staff members to participate in learning communities and coaching sessions, BELL provides in-depth training and coaching on critical skills and topics related to employer engagement. Applications are due April 21. For more information and instructions on how to apply, please visit our website.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks, as WPTI announces plans for upcoming symposiums, briefings, and training sessions on relevant topics for workforce development providers, as our field looks to lead New York City out of an unstable job market, toward an equitable economic recovery.


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