Monday, September 27, 2010

Where is the economic bottom?

...And what does "the bottom" mean for disconnected youth in New York City and other major cities across the United States?

In reading Bob Herbert's piece in this morning's New York Times (see:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/25/opinion/25herbert.html?th&emc=th) I cannot help but to think that the next few years will be extraordinarily difficult for an already fragmented system that is struggling to find its collective voice in an effort to bring businesses, post-secondary institutions, philanthropies and government together in a singular strategic direction to improve the lives of the emerging workforce. It is not simply just a matter of building on best practices and infusing innovation into programs. It is not just a matter of more dollars, or more programs. It is a matter of our collective understanding that if we fail to engage the millennium generation and bring them to the table as today's assets - not just tomorrow's potential workforce - then we fail ourselves.

Add to this the crunch that struggling families feel, and the impact that this struggle has in communities throughout big cities like New York. In New York City, the shelter census is dramatically increasing, more people are seeking public assistance or unemployment insurance, and personal/home loan default rates are dramatically increasing. This two-pronged pressure - to make ends meet now while trying to plan for the future is depriving us of a necessary, central driver for all change: Hope.

Hope. That has been the watchword of the Obama administration, and many people I talk to are still waiting for Obama's initial platform - especially as it relates to the economy - to realize potential.

But economists have urged us to take the long view, and that recovery is a process that may take years. Are there opportunities to take advantage of now?

I had the opportunity to attend the most recent NYC Workforce Funders Group quarterly meeting (this is a group of approximately 40 public and private philanthropies that regularly convene to consider shared funding strategies, innovative/best practices, and larger systemic issues confronting the City). James Parrot of the Fiscal Policy Institute and Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future - two prominent economic thinkers, writers, and researchers here in New York seemed to think that there are things to be optimistic about. In consideration of net job gains (or at least not significant job losses) the health care and hospitality sectors have done surprising well, and there are small niche industries that may present opportunities for job seekers in the months and years to come, notably in recession-resistant industries such as pest control management and automotive mechanics.

However, when I consider two signature projects that JobsFirstNYC is sponsoring or supporting - the Sunset Park Alliance for Youth and the Bronx Opportunity Network, I think we have to be willing to take the long view - with all the political, financial and strategic sacrifices that may mean. The reality of it is that many young people will need a longer time to be prepared to become part of the pool of talent that employers in large and competitive cities like New York can draw upon for their staffing needs. Bringing these employers to the discussion about this critical emerging and potential workforce is very important for all of us, as this emerging workforce will have the capacity to influence the quality of life and vibrancy of our City in the years to come.

I am hopeful that collectively we can put aside political, financial and structural constraints and find a new way of both engaging young people and partnering with businesses to make progress in this regard. And if we are indeed at bottom, I am also hopeful, because from there, all we can do is go up.

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