How to prepare New Yorkers to benefit from Amazon

Amazon's Seattle headquarters, featuring two large glass domes.
Amazon's Seattle headquarters, featuring two large glass domes.
(Shutterstock.com)
Amazon's Seattle headquarters

How to prepare New Yorkers to benefit from Amazon

New York needs to ensure that a broad mix of residents will benefit when good jobs are created.
January 25, 2018

Even before New York made the shortlist for Amazon’s second headquarters alongside 19 other cities, many New Yorkers worried that a new home base for the world’s largest internet company would be more burden than boon.

But Amazon and its 50,000 well-paying jobs is nothing to sneeze at. Most of New York City’s recent employment growth has been fueled by jobs at the very top and bottom of the economic ladder, with far too few in the middle. A major global headquarters will create thousands of entry and mid-level positions in the thriving technology industry, with broad-based benefits for its new home. Building Amazon’s HQ2 in New York would provide a powerful boost to the city’s tech ecosystem. And it would help New York attract more of the engineers and entrepreneurs who are the backbone of any city’s future success in the innovation economy.

But with millions of New Yorkers struggling to get by at a time of skyrocketing rents and stagnant wages, New York needs to ensure that a broad mix of residents will benefit when good jobs are created. The city needs to go beyond pulling out all the stops to land Amazon and push like never before to invest in the skills New Yorkers need to succeed if it comes.

Resistance to Amazon reflects the sobering reality that many New Yorkers still can’t get ahead. Despite a prolonged economic expansion – resulting in historic job growth and unemployment rates near record lows – far too many residents have been left behind. In previous generations, an extended economic boom would have lifted more boats. But over the past decade, the lion’s share of new jobs has been added in low-wage fields like home health care, food service and retail. The result is that wage gains have fallen far behind rising costs; the share of rent-burdened households has increased; and more than 1.7 million New Yorkers live below the poverty line – the largest number since 1970.

Given all this, it’s understandable that a lot of New Yorkers may be resistant to Amazon. They know that the bulk of the tech sector’s growth has not benefited most working New Yorkers. Why should Amazon be any different?

But rather than just symbolizing the problem, Amazon should be part of the solution.

With manufacturing accounting for fewer than 75,000 jobs in New York City today – and much of the city’s employment growth concentrated in low-wage industries – New York needs to embrace tech jobs as a key to the future of middle class work.

This means making major new investments to ensure that more New Yorkers can access these well-paying jobs of tomorrow, today.

When barely 1 in 3 residents holds a bachelor’s degree, including just 19 percent of Bronxites, the first problem is clear: New York needs more workers with a post-secondary credential. Without one, the share of New York City residents that stand to benefit from an influx of good jobs remains painfully low.

Furthermore, the growing role of automation in the workforce is reshaping occupations in nearly every sector. Millions of jobs will be affected in New York City alone, as revealed in a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future. Nearly every good job will require increased technical fluency in the decades ahead, whether a software engineer or an office manager.

New Yorkers need the education and training for this work. Companies like Amazon should provide some, but the city and state must do the rest.

Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for making some of these critical investments. Computer science is now offered in every secondary school in the city. The Tech Talent Pipeline, a city initiative that convenes tech employers and public colleges to develop training programs, has created a conduit for organizations to build the skills that employers need today. And the city has made bold new investments in early education. But the task ahead demands a tremendous rethinking and reinvestment in education and training citywide.

Now is the time for an Amazon-sized investment in workforce training, and programs that help more of the city’s low-income community college students earn a credential. Here are three major recommendations as to how:

Fully fund the mayor’s own workforce plan. In 2014, the mayor advanced a strong roadmap for reforming the city’s workforce development system, but it hasn’t been fully funded. As part of the Amazon bid, the city should follow through on its promising start and fund Career Pathways. That means more resources for the city to grow its training programs. It also means significantly expanding bridge programs, which are critical for helping the hardest-to-serve New Yorkers become job ready.

Invest in scaling up successful tech-training programs. Per Scholas, Coalition for Queens, and a handful of other nonprofits offer proven training programs that are highly effective at channeling low-income New Yorkers into tech jobs. Combined, these programs serve hundreds of New Yorkers per year, when they need to be serving thousands. The city needs to make major investments in the capacity of nonprofit partners to scale the programs that work.

Provide free unlimited MetroCards to all of the city’s community college students. Today, 71 percent of students at CUNY’s community colleges live in households making less than $30,000 annually. To have a shot at an Amazon job – or any other opportunity offering family-sustaining wages – New York needs these young people and working adults to earn a postsecondary credential. But only 22 percent of full-time CUNY community college students earn a degree in three years, and far too many drop out due to non-tuition financial barriers. One all-too-common obstacle is the cost of a MetroCard, which can force students to choose between jumping the turnstile or missing class. For $34 million per year, New York could provide an unlimited MetroCard to every community college student. This would spell immediate relief for fragile monthly budgets, while extending the power of mobility to thousands of low-income students.

A bold proposal to land 50,000 good jobs deserves an equally ambitious plan to invest in the city’s workforce. New York should want Amazon’s jobs, while ensuring more New Yorkers get them.

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Jonathan Bowles
is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.
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Matt A.V. Chaban
is the Center for an Urban Future's policy director and Fisher Fellow for the Middle Class Jobs Project.
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