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How the Pandemic Is Speeding Up Job Automation for Struggling New Yorkers

Greg David, THE CITY

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Home » How the Pandemic Is Speeding Up Job Automation for Struggling New Yorkers

Drivers, food preparation workers and more are at risk of seeing their positions go away — and Hispanic New Yorkers could get hit hardest, a new study found. The crisis is spurring calls for ambitious job-training efforts.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

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After seven years of working in the hospitality industry, Matheus Vogetta got a chance to act in a film in early 2020. The movie was being shot in China when the coronavirus struck in January, sending him and the rest of the crew back to the United States.

His luck didn’t get any better: Vogetta, who immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil when he was 4, landed a server’s job in a new Brazilian steakhouse that had been set to open on what turned out to be two days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo paused the state’s economy.

“I didn’t see a path to recovery or to the level the industry has been,” said Vogetta, 24, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Now he is three weeks into a 15-week cybersecurity certification program at Per Scholas, a free job training program. He hopes to end up with a career in tech.

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Vogetta’s story will need to be repeated hundreds of thousands of times in the coming years, according to a just-released study by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF). Hispanic and Black workers, the groups hardest hit by pandemic-related illness and unemployment, will face a new existential challenge as the recovery takes hold in the city because they disproportionately hold jobs vulnerable to automation.

The CUF report names drivers, food preparation workers, stockers and order fillers as those most at risk of seeing their jobs go away.

“This immediate crisis of joblessness is the task at hand, but we see a huge challenge on the horizon,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial director at the center and lead author of the study. “Automation will disrupt those very same jobs that have been battered in this economy.”

The city lost a record 631,000 jobs last year. The hospitality sector, which includes restaurants and previously kept workers like Vogetta employed, has shed half its positions.

CUF says 41% of the most vulnerable jobs are held by Hispanic New Yorkers. Black workers account for 20%. Overall, three-quarters are held by Hispanic, Black and Asian workers. One example: 75% of restaurant dishwashers are Hispanic.

The issue primarily confronts men, who hold 69% of the jobs at risk of being automated compared with 31% for women. Meanwhile, workers under 25 are more likely to be working in a threatened job than any other age group.

‘Scope Has Gotten Bigger’

The pandemic is responsible in some ways for the looming crisis, as restrictions on in-person contact have hastened the implementation of technology. And government officials, especially the next mayor, will have to recognize and move to meet the challenge.

“It’s not new news but the scale and scope has gotten bigger,” said Angie Kamath, the dean for continuing education and workforce development at CUNY. “As deep and sharp as these disparities have been and will grow without intentional efforts to make more programs available.”

While previous studies Dvorkin produced led him to expect some disparities, the extent to which workers of color were exposed to automation surprised him, especially, as compared with whites.

“I was expecting to see some better protection for white workers but it is striking that white workers comprise 40% of the workforce but hold only 22% of automatable jobs,” he said. “This should set off alarm bells for policy makers.”

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CUF and experts in the field agree that workforce development must be radically overhauled and expanded.

“We historically have focused on getting people into a job, any job, as quickly as possible, and that no longer works,” said Jose Ortiz Jr., who is chief executive of the workforce training umbrella group New York City Employment and Training Coalition. “We need to ensure the workforce people are market and talent driven.”

He wants city government to map out the local job base and provide workforce organizations with real time data on what employment needs are.

Among the center’s key recommendations are a comprehensive city plan to mitigate automation by focusing on giving workers more skills and emphasizing careers that are more resistant to technology. It would be the first such effort in the nation.

The report suggests setting up a lifetime training account funded either with pre-tax paycheck deductions or public funds and tax credits to allow New Yorkers to pay for skills training throughout their lifetimes.

Most important, the center and other experts say short-term certification programs must be dramatically expanded. So-called bridge programs, which also provide basic academic and social skills, need to be bolstered as well.

Calling on CUNY

Per Scholas, where Vogetta is enrolled, has seen applications jump 25% during the pandemic. In the last quarter, it received 800 applications. It will be able to enroll just 600 adults in its tuition-free programs for the entire year.

The nonprofit has been operating only online since March but intends to return to in-person training this summer while using virtual teaching to extend its reach.

The Center calls on CUNY to play a crucial role in the effort. 

CUNY is pursuing two approaches: A “degree-plus” option combines a bachelors with internships and apprenticeships that can guarantee employers the specific skills they want. A pilot project at the Brooklyn Navy Yard led to one-third of the students landing full-time jobs at the sprawling complex.

The city could make such programs attractive to small- and medium-sized employers by offering a wage subsidy for the first year or so of employment.

The other approach at CUNY, echoing experts’ emphasis, involves programs designed to produce competency certifications that guarantee employers someone who can step into the job, whether or not the person has an advanced degree.

Health care is one area of focus for CUNY, but so are tech specialties including data analytics, cybersecurity and user experience design.

“You can make a good living in system admin and junior data analytics,” said Kamath.

Mayoral Mixed Bag

How much the many mayoral candidates understand the automation threat isn’t clear.

“Some of them are thoroughly in tune and others are learning,” said Ortiz, whose NYC Workforce Group has been holding sessions with the candidates and will host a mayoral forum next month.

Andrew Yang, who emphasized the issue during his 2020 presidential campaign, postponed a session with Ortiz’ group. He also declined an interview request from THE CITY.

Andrew Yang campaigns in 2019 for president.

Vogetta hopes to be launched on his tech career before any new mayor takes office on Jan. 1.

He spends his days immersed in learning basic Linux language, which he concedes can be confusing. But at the end of the program he expects to understand Linux and have basic cybersecurity skills. In the meantime, he’s been getting by on unemployment benefits.

“I’ll be qualified to be a desk technician or a junior security analyst,” he said.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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