Andrea Devening (Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation), Katherine Ortiz (New America’s Resilient Communities program), and Shanee Lucas (Green City Force) meet before the first panel discussion.

By Carter Craft
Senior Economic Officer, Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York

Billions of dollars in investments are being made in housing, infrastructure, and the built environment across New York City as a result of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

After the catastrophic storm, the federal government allocated more than $60 billion for reconstruction around the region, with transportation infrastructure, energy and water facilities, hospitals, and housing receiving significant funding.

While a lot of construction is happening, many projects are still in planning and design.

Urban communities on the front line of vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal storms share some striking similarities: the building stock is old; the land use is shifting from industrial to residential; and many residents are in mid- and lower-income brackets.

A forum hosted at Brooklyn Borough Hall on November 18 sought to create a framework through which these conditions could create synergy.

Titled “Our Next Economy,” this forum on building resilience and workforce development sought to answer large questions that loom over almost every large coastal city:

  • Can investments in community and infrastructure resilience help to catalyze new work and workforce opportunities for the un- and under-employed?
  • Are there education and training programs that can be expanded or adapted to help address these needs?
  • What policies and additional investments are needed to help ensure that investments in climate adaption are supported by a viable financial and human framework?

Resilient labor

The morning program began with a presentation on the current state of the “Resilient Labor Market,” a study commissioned by the South Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation.

In this session, EcoStrategies Consulting presented its findings from an analysis of the economic sectors where more than 420,000 workers are employed by 33,000 firms in construction and real estate sectors throughout the New York metro area.

Drilling down into entry-level positions, the researchers found 22 jobs where only a high school diploma or a GED were needed to get a foot in the door. Many of these positions were in energy, water and green infrastructure related fields. Of the 13 employer interviews conducted, virtually all expressed the belief their sectors were growing.

Finding opportunities post-Sandy

Karen Blondel of the Fifth Avenue Committee poses a question to Joshua Levin, Director of Economic Development for Brooklyn Borough President’s Office.

The next part of the program was a panel discussion, “Today’s Economy: Parallel Programs and Emerging Opportunities Post-Sandy.” This discussion provided an opportunity for professionals engaged in these areas to respond to the report.

Moderated by Josh Levin, Director of Economic Development for the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office, panelists discussed initiatives underway by agencies and NGOs, including how they work to address today’s demands in the labor market for education and training, and how they can grow.

Shanna Castillo, Director of Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability at the New York City Housing Authority, talked about the importance of linking work force training at housing projects with programs offered by community colleges.

“Sometimes we see a lower level of interest among residents,” said Ms. Castillo, “probably because potential participants don’t see that a single class is really part of a [seamless and] continuous process that helps them expand their skill set.”

Ms. Castillo was joined on the panel by Shanee Lucas, a team leader for the Love Where You Live Program for Green City Force, and Katherine Ortiz, a program associate at New America’s Resilient Communities Program. Each of these nonprofit organizations are involved in workforce development by executing specific projects working with entry-level workers.

The Q&A period allowed for some interesting exchanges and observations. One advocate with experience with existing job-training programs noted, “some of these sound like great programs,” before adding “but how do we weed out the [organizations] who just take the attendance sheets?”

David Gibbs, a participant with extensive experience in community solar projects, commented “getting a job is one step, but what about promotion? How can today’s entry level workers get ahead, and move up the ladder in their field?”

Workforce development

This set the stage for the second panel discussion entitled “Workforce Development Strategies for the Future.”

Dan Wiley of U.S. Rep Nydia Velazquez’s office talks about the importance of industrial businesses to Brooklyn’s economy.

This panel explored emerging and new technologies and programs, including subsectors that offer the potential for growth. Facilitated by Laurie Schoeman of Enterprise Community Partners, other panelists included Ron Shiffman of Pratt Institute, Michael Yee from the Educational and Cultural Trust Fund of the Electrical Industry, Morris Cox from BlocPower and Karen Blondel from the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Featured Guest Gabrielle Muris from the Rotterdam Centre for Resilient Delta Cities talked about her experience from a decade ago helping to create “RDM”, an educational and training center in Rotterdam that was designed to create opportunities for the workers displaced by a shipyard that was shutting down.

Ms. Muris provided a lot of perspective on the importance of educational programming, the need for continuous networking, and the opportunities that come with placemaking.

“America is very innovative, but also very bureaucratic,” she noted, as she talked about the transformation of the place from active shipbuilding and repair to “Research, Design and Manufacturing.”

RDM’s founding partners included the Port of Rotterdam, the City of Rotterdam, and Erasmus University Rotterdam. “The people with the ideas were the people from the schools. In the beginning, it was not at all about the ‘Makerspace,’ but more about creating opportunities for the former shipyard workers.”

One of the schools with a strong presence at RDM is the Hogeschool Rotterdam, which offers unique opportunities for students in ages 16 to 24. Through the presence of companies at the RDM campus, students found themselves in an ideal learning environment that directly connects them to practice.

Businesses also have a lot to benefit from the RDM Campus. By being directly in contact with students, more productive and creative output can be generated, as well as providing businesses with a pool of talent for potential employment.

And something else that seems significant is the approach RDM Campus has. The education of the students is based on practical problems occurring from projects carried out by businesses also present at the campus. Through this inventive collaboration, the concept of innovation teams was created, consisting of professors, researchers, students and employees from participating companies. These teams should be seen as an open source knowledge network.

Thus, RDM Campus aims to be a concrete stimulus for new economic development (the “Next Economy”) by creating a knowledge-based match between the (creative) manufacturing industry and technical research and education on the one hand, and offering physical room for innovation and experiments on the other.

Deeper trends

Bringing it back to Brooklyn, Morris Cox of BlocPower pointed out that the day’s discussions were not just focused on a new “post-Sandy” focus on resilient, but were driven by deeper trends.

“We’re not just talking about solar energy or cleaner electricity,” he said. “We are also talking about distributed capacity that microgrids offer.”

This distributed capacity is a metaphor for economics as well. “There are great opportunities not just for employment, but also for community equity and ownership in these assets,” he said.

In this perspective, the focus on the labor and work opportunities may not be driven by investments in a particular sector, but by broadening the value-based systems underlying the economy. One such example is found in the principles of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition that Katherine Ortiz spoke about earlier in the day: “Access, Participation, Common Ownership, and Healthy Communities.”

Bridging the old and new economies

Looking toward the direction that urban policy may be taking in the new national government taking shape in 2017, Ron Shiffman encouraged the attendees to work together now “to envision and plan in order to be prepared for the next event. It might not be water, it might be heat, or a shock to the food supply.’’

“The success of ‘Our Next Economy’” said event organizer Gita Nandan, co-chair of the NY Rising Committee for Red Hook, “will rely on these opportunities being more equitably distributed than in our last economy.”