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Summer 1997
   
Gotham’s Workforce Woes
Heather Mac Donald
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When Michael W. decided to open a fried-chicken restaurant in Brooklyn, he didn't think twice about becoming a New York City employer. But he overlooked one small point: finding staff. In the first year he went through about 40 employees for four or five part-time slots. "You tell prospective employees to be here at 11 am, they show up at 2:30. You tell them, `Sorry, the position has been filled.' They say, `You bastard, you bitch, you're always trying to keep us down.'" Setting up a business that depends on local youths is "a lost cause," he has concluded.

Across the East River, large Wall Street employers sound a similar complaint. As a gesture of community goodwill, Chase Manhattan Bank holds an open hiring session three mornings a week for teller positions. Marjorie Ryan, who oversees the recruiting program, reports that a poor attitude toward work is just the beginning of these prospective employees' problems. Even the 6 to 10 percent of the candidates who make it through an interview and training often have a hard time once they get to a bank. "They can't keep track of transactions," Ryan says. "They can't assimilate all the information they need to tally at the end of the day."

Michael W. and Marjorie Ryan have come hard up against one of the more emotion-fraught economic subjects in the city: the dearth of good entry-level workers. New York's labor force once served as a magnet for employers and, at the top of the employment ladder, still does. But talk to the city's employers today and, with few exceptions, the same complaints surface again and again: entry-level employees are defensive and inflexible, chronically late and absent; they dress inappropriately and treat supervisors, co-workers, and customers with disdain; they can't speak or write properly and lack basic analytic skills. Still, for all their exasperation, many employers will share these complaints only sotto voce: they don't want to appear unduly critical, for fear of being charged with racism or bad corporate manners.

But New York cannot politely ignore the worsening problem of its workforce. The difficulty of finding employees with a strong work ethic and decent basic skills contributed to the flight of businesses from the city during the 1980s, an exodus halted only by the recession of the early 1990s, when the demand for workers dried up. Now that the city's economy is slowly reawakening, the need for qualified, reliable workers is once again growing acute. Regrettably, the Board of Education, a key factor in ensuring competent employees, has yet to confront the dire shortcomings of the workers-to-be whom it graduates. Instead, the public schools have rushed to embrace the dubious methods of "school-to-work" instruction, the latest trend in progressive pedagogy and a woefully inadequate bridge to the world of employment.

Data on the workforce problem are hard to come by, and CEOs, though exasperated with the city's workforce, almost universally refuse to go public with their complaints as they move jobs out of town. In the 1980s, George Tobjy, now a senior manager at the giant KPMG Peat Marwick accounting and consulting firm, represented the city in talks with corporations that were threatening to leave. Their number-one beef: poor clerical help. "But the companies said to us, `If we're ever quoted, we will deny it,'" Tobjy recalls. Jim Shriner, director of location strategies for Fantus Consulting, a corporate-relocations subsidiary of the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm, explains that companies always want to attribute their relocation to things "you can't do anything about," like the price of real estate. Telling the truth won't change anything, they reason, and risks a public-relations fiasco. Instead, businesses just "very quietly transfer or create jobs elsewhere," concluded a 1992 mayoral task force.

But interviews with dozens of bosses across the city produce a remarkably consistent picture of disgruntlement. Bad attitude tops the list of employers' complaints against New York workers. New employees almost invariably arrive with an entitlement mentality. While this is by no means unique to New York, companies that have picked up and moved elsewhere say that workers here possess a particularly aggravated case of inflated expectations—not surprising in a city that has perfected the transfer of responsibility from the individual to the "system."

Chase's Ryan is continually amazed at how potential employees handle the application process. "All the candidates think we owe them something," she says. "`When do you think I can start?' they ask." All demand to know why they're not hired. Myra Fasner, now the director of human resources at Schick technologies in Long Island City, used to direct the support staff at a local drug manufacturer. Many workers expected to advance automatically, regardless of effort, she says. "Their attitude would blow my mind," she recalls. "They would complain: `This one's getting that; how come I'm not getting that?—this isn't fair.' But the person would have just arrived!"

Stock workers in Al Rodriguez's chain of Associated Supermarkets work more slowly when they feel they're not getting paid what they deserve. "Why give a guy a raise if he slows down?" he asks incredulously. Workers are impatient today, Rodriguez mutters. They don't understand that someone earning $10 an hour most likely started at the minimum wage—as Rodriguez did when he began working as a delivery boy in a Queens bodega at age 12. Many of the applicants at Chase's open hiring session had quit positions at fast-food restaurants and big retail chains: the jobs demanded too much effort for too little pay. The notion that such work provided opportunity drew nothing but scorn: people who rose through the ranks "really needed the job so they kissed butt," explained one older teen derisively.

Jean Zatorski, personnel director at Pfizer's 148-year-old pharmaceutical plant in Brownsville, Brooklyn, has lost patience with the entitlement mentality. "The majority of my workers think that they are doing a good job simply by showing up at work," she says, "and every last one of them is owed something." Seventy-three percent of Pfizer's workforce is minority, drawn largely from the surrounding community, but everyone is "being discriminated against," she reports sarcastically. Zatorski welcomes the inevitable discrimination charges when she fires an employee; all discharged workers threaten to hire an attorney. "I pray they do," she snorts; "at least then I'll be dealing with someone rational." Zatorski, who has never lost a case before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even has an EEOC template already prepared for her disgruntled former employees to use against her.

Inflated concerns about "respect" are often at the root of these problems. Once identified primarily with inner-city males, the obsession with respect has spread to the inner-city female population. High school senior Mary Hernandez is a case in point.

An attractive girl with an eye-catching figure, Mary works at the law firm of Ohrenstein and Brown, high up in the rococo Helmsley Building. She is there as a participant in the Board of Education's cooperative work-experience program, in which juniors and seniors alternate weeks in school and at an office throughout the semester. Mary has already decided that she doesn't like her employers: they yell at her. "When the mail comes in, they just cry for everything! It's ridiculous—they're grown men!" she fumes. Mary has developed a strategy for responding to such seemingly irrational demands: she ignores them. "Personally, I'm, like, in my own world; I keep on walkin'," she says proudly. In so doing, she believes, she is subtly modifying the attorneys' behavior: "Seein' the fact here that I'm not going to accept it," she says, "it makes my job a little easier. They speak at me a little more calmly."

At the heart of Mary's campaign is the question of respect: "If I respect you, you'd better respect me," she warns. Such a bargain sounds reasonable enough. But Mary's understanding of her relation to the firm is skewed. According to her supervisors, whatever rancor the firm's attorneys direct at her is the result of her own inattention. She regularly delivers mail and documents to the wrong people, they say, confusing, in particular, two attorneys with very dissimilar names. "I told her: `You have to get people's initials right,'" says facilities manager Harry Schulberg. "She responded: `Why? All they're going to do is complain.'" Moreover, Mary has a problem with authority: "If you ask her to do something, she will look at you and `grrrr,'" adds Schulberg.

Absenteeism plagues many New York workplaces. Clay-Park Labs is the largest manufacturer of topical nonprescription drugs in the U.S. and one of the major employers in the Bronx. In order to ensure a full staff every day, it has to keep 5 to 10 percent more people on its payroll than it actually needs. "On a day when everyone comes to work, they have nothing to do," says Bruce Meyer, chief officer of operations. Jason Goldenberg, a vice president of operations at Cleaners Products Supply Corp., a dry-cleaning products distribution business in Woodside, Queens, has been trying to hire two truck drivers for the last eight months but finds that people don't bother to show up for their interviews.

Persistent lateness is no less of a disruption. Julio, a tenth-grade high school dropout who works as a mechanic at Clay-Park Labs, views himself as a reliable worker. A supervisor, overhearing our conversation, laughed at this self-assessment, noting that Julio had arrived late just that morning. Julio shot back: "They don't see when you work! That's what's so wrong about this company. When you mess up once, they try to push you over the cliff."

Workers assume that an excuse redeems any failing, says Christine Edwards, vice president for human resources at Brooklyn Hospital. One employee who had been late 32 times in six months was always ready with an explanation, reports Edwards: "`I just couldn't get it together,' or, `I didn't have a baby-sitter,' or, `My mother's strung out,' or sometimes, `But I was just 15 minutes late!'"

New York employers have discovered that they can no longer expect even rudimentary business etiquette from workers. Employment, say some disgruntled managers, is becoming more and more like baby-sitting. "We have to teach life skills—how to dress, act, answer the phone," remarks Roberta Tennenberg, an office manager at Eagle Electric, an electric components manufacturer and the largest employer in Long Island City. "Somehow we're not communicating manners in this society," she concludes. On the first day of Con Edison's employee orientation program, three people will inevitably be sitting with their hats on, says Tom Shanahan, manager of recruitment and retention. "I ask them: `Is it cold?' and they look at me like I'm crazy." People have no sense of appropriate behavior, sighs Chase's Ryan. "They chew gum, they ask inappropriate questions, they have a hostile attitude."

Personal appearance poses a minefield of problems. Brooklyn Hospital's Christine Edwards interviewed an 18-year-old who showed up with two earrings, a nose ring, and a hat. "I told him to doff his cap," she recalls. "`The next time you go see someone for a job,' I said, `take the ring out. Your girlfriend may love it; I'm not so impressed.'" Marleen Baez, coordinator of recruiting at Arthur Andersen, the big accounting and consulting firm, has to keep constant tabs on how female co-op students dress: they are coming to the office in ever-shorter skirts and ever-more-transparent blouses, she reports.

Seeming victories over grooming can melt away overnight. Geraldine Gallashaw, a vice president of personnel at the Bank of New York, advised a student intern against wearing slacks. The girl acceded—but soon started showing up in the tiniest of skirts. Gallashaw told her that such attire was inappropriate and suggested that she find something more conservative, in blue or black. In the end, Gallashaw had to reverse her position on slacks, figuring it was the lesser of two evils.

When a New York-based cruise line recently learned that executives from its European parent company were planning a visit, the local CEO faced a crisis: what to do with the employees? "The staff had no social graces; their physical appearance put them off the scale," recalls Jim Shriner of Fantus Consulting, an advisor to the company. The CEO's solution: he hid his employees, carefully steering the European visitors away from the offices where the most embarrassing-looking members of the staff worked.

Rudeness and recalcitrance have raised the friction level in many workplaces. Eagle Electric's Tennenberg sees a constant lack of cooperation among employees. The company's supply clerks become surly if other employees call about an unfilled supply request: "I'll get it when I'm ready," they snap back. "Most of my people fail because they don't have `sandbox skills,'" explains Pfizer's Zatorski. She reports that many harass one another verbally and sometimes even come to blows, often along ethnic lines.

Sometimes even bosses get the same surly treatment. Many of the short-lived but majestically haughty secretaries of a local commercial real estate developer have repeatedly told him, "I don't do that." For former chicken impresario Michael W., the problem is simple: "By the time these kids are in high school, they have no concept of following orders." As one recruit at the Chase open hiring session put it, "I don't really pay no attention to no supervisors."

Outsiders, naturally, receive the worst treatment of all. The basic problem with receptionists, says Jim Minogue, director of human relations at Arthur Andersen, is that "you can't hide them from clients." Employers across the city tell of customer-service representatives or receptionists who fly off the handle when a customer asks "too many" questions. "Throughout the industry it's becoming increasingly difficult to find people who do not become belligerent when they have to answer lots of questions," observes Burke Stimson, a spokesman for AT&T. Such difficulties have driven customer-service centers out of the cities, he says, and into the Midwest, where there still exists a "reservoir of people who are helpful, civilized, and courteous."

Insecurity about basic skills often explains the testiness of New York workers. Employees who are in over their heads on the job can become defensive and hostile. Without sufficient analytic and cognitive skills, they are at a loss to help customers solve communications or billing problems, says Thomas O'Gara, a former human relations manager at NYNEX. And if the problem lies outside their formal area of responsibility, they often refuse to investigate any further or become confrontational.

Basic skills such as reading and math are hard to come by in the New York market. Entry-level applicants at Eagle Electric have accused office manager Tennenberg of giving "trick" questions on the entry exam, such as: what is 5 percent of 100? Some demand to use a calculator. AT&T's Stimson overheard a company secretary ask her office mates what state Connecticut is in; she felt no chagrin upon learning the answer, apparently regarding it as arcane knowledge. Illiteracy and cognitive deficits have thwarted companies that try to upgrade their workers' skills. Nursing assistants at Brooklyn Hospital have been unable to complete a refresher course in nursing because they are so deficient in reading and math. In the 1980s many banks grew so frustrated with their employees' inability to learn that they simply "dumbed down" jobs, splitting what used to be a single task into several. Rather than processing an entire loan, for example, a worker would be responsible for just one-third of the transaction.

The most common complaint about worker skills, however, is that prospective native-born employees don't speak English properly. Arthur Andersen's Baez finds the verbal skills of her co-op students "atrocious—they aren't able to articulate." Oliver Lednicer, the president of Kruysman Redweld, a printer and binder in SoHo, has virtually stopped sending business correspondence because his employees can't spell. Leaving aside questions of attitude, finding a competent receptionist in New York has become an ordeal. "Companies tell me: `I don't care if they type or have ever seen a computer. If they can write and speak, send them,'" says Diane Cohen, an account manager with the Irene Cohen employment agency. Employers look for résumés showing a midwestern origin, says Cohen, because midwesterners tend to speak more clearly and correctly.

Poor language skills transcend race. But the problem becomes particularly thorny when it concerns black English. Several local firms offer courses in "interpersonal communication skills"—sometimes as a last-ditch attempt to address the "Ebonics" issue. Though I encountered the question "May I ax who's calling?" at several major firms, companies try to avoid employing people who don't speak standard English. "We would absolutely not hire someone" with such diction, asserts Myra Fasner of Schick Technologies. But it's "a very touchy subject," she concedes. Job recruiter Diane Cohen has urged school principals to teach their students to speak correctly. "Some say I'm a racist," she says. "Others say: `We can't do that because we'll be called racists.'"

Immigrant workers are often illiterate in both their native language and English—a "staggering problem" for New York City manufacturers, according to Will Saunders, director of the LaGuardia Urban Center for Economic Development, a nonprofit job-training and management-consulting operation at LaGuardia Community College. The center has sought state funding for English as a Second Language (ESL) job training, but the Empire State Development Corporation has balked, saying that the need was so great that "there wouldn't be funds left for anything else." Many manufacturers nevertheless feel compelled to offer ESL classes on site.

Starting in the 1980s many of New York's most venerable corporate citizens began shipping jobs out of the city in a desperate search for skilled workers (as well as for cheaper real estate and friendlier regulations). Chase Manhattan, Citibank, Salomon Brothers, Mutual of New York, and KLM moved operations like money transfers and data processing to the South and Midwest or left the city altogether. "Labor is the biggest single issue regarding corporate relocation," says Charles Galloway of Moran, Stahl & Boyer, a relocation company. "The employer will tell you it's costs, but labor is 70 percent of the equation."

In any local economy with a disproportionate number of poorly educated people, employers have to pay a premium for basic skills. In New York, competition for well-spoken, well-mannered workers, especially secretaries and receptionists, has become ferocious. Companies that take too long picking from clerical candidates invariably lose their top choices. Reasonably skilled secretaries—ordinary secretaries, not high-flying executive assistants—can command $50,000 a year, reputed to be the highest rate in the country. Smaller companies, which can't afford to pay these rates, suffer. If you pay below the midpoint in the Manhattan clerical market, it's hard to find someone who can read, says Dennis Donovan, senior managing director of the Wadley Donovan Group, a corporate relocation firm.

Manufacturers in New York fare only slightly better. The city's huge influx of immigrants has kept entry-level factory wages low, and the industriousness of these newcomers, according to one executive, has encouraged native workers to upgrade their skills. Still, manufacturers considering relocation must weigh quantity against quality: immigrant minimum-wage workers often deliver minimal work, say some employers. Some managers challenge the stereotype of the hard-driving immigrant. Schick Technologies' Fasner says that plenty of foreign-born workers quickly fall into "bad American habits. They say, `Okay, now I have a job; I don't have to work as hard.'" Companies with a large immigrant workforce often suffer from absenteeism just as much as those with native labor.

Candid discussions of workforce quality may be taboo in the corporate world, but competing states and localities know how to speak in code. Economic development agencies elsewhere in the country gladly furnish disgruntled New York companies with statistics on the productivity and education of their own workers. The North Carolina Department of Commerce, for example, puts out-of-state employers in touch with local human resources managers to discuss such usually confidential matters as turnover rates, absenteeism, and trainability.

New York hardly shines in such comparisons. Clay-Park Labs learned that several companies that had recently relocated to the Tarheel State saw their absentee rates drop from 10 percent to 3 percent. Sequins International, a company in Woodside, recently looked into the operations of a similar Pennsylvania firm: its rival needed only one supervisor for every 45 workers, compared to one for every six in its own plant. True, the Pennsylvania company paid its workers $4 an hour more, but it needed 75 percent fewer supervisors. The overall result, according to a job analyst from New York: the company is making money "hand over fist."

Companies that have left New York have experienced a dramatic improvement in worker output. J. P. Morgan started moving its back-office operations to Delaware ten years ago. Productivity increased well over 20 percent. Though Delaware's longer average workweek explains some of the improvement, the bank's new employees were more willing to "go the extra mile," explains Morgan's facilities manager, David Singleton. In New York, if the check processors finished that day's batch of checks early, they read the paper, Singleton recalls. When the Delaware workers complete a task ahead of schedule, they ask what they should do next. The first time this happened, supervisors were shocked: they held an emergency meeting to come up with useful work for them. Outside New York, says Singleton, "you just don't find the same jaundiced cynicism about work."

In 1991 Salomon Brothers began moving about 600 back-office jobs from New York to Tampa. Output increased up to threefold. Kathy Rocca, Salomon's vice president for human relations, credits the education, commitment, and flexibility of the company's Florida workers. "We wanted to change the workplace culture, and the only way to do that was to physically remove ourselves from New York," she explains. The international relief organization CARE relocated to Atlanta four years ago in search of lower costs. It got higher productivity. "Finding people in New York was a horrendous problem," says Tim Aston, former director of international staffing. Turnover and street cynicism were rampant, he remembers. "There's a whole different kind of worker here," says Aston. "People seem more appreciative to have a job."

Companies that remain in the city face escalating hiring costs. Finding competent workers means sifting through ever more applicants—an expensive process. Pfizer takes 5 percent of its applicants; Macy's, 2 percent. In 1987, 84 percent of New York Telephone's 90,000 applicants failed its math and English exam, prompting a sharp public debate about low worker skills. NYNEX (New York Telephone's successor) now refuses to disclose its entry-level pass rate.

Many companies have given up on testing entirely, mostly for fear of discrimination suits but also because testing so severely limits the available candidates. When Clay-Park Labs introduced a math test, its 10 percent acceptance rate dropped to less than 3 percent. Other companies, like Blue Cross, don't have a clear pass-fail line for their entry-level tests but use ranges instead—a candidate in the "poor" range may still get hired if doing so improves the company's "diversity profile." But such "poor" candidates have a higher than usual rate of not working out on the job.

Training—some of it remedial—also carries a big price tag. Arthur Andersen has to offer classes in ESL, self-presentation, and writing, among other skills. NYNEX and Con Edison immediately enroll new hires in training programs, thus putting them on the payroll well before they actually begin doing work. Robert Damato, a spokesman at the Learning Center, Con Edison's huge modern training facility at water's edge in Long Island City, says that the utility is "very concerned about what the worker will look like 20 years down the line . . . . It's why we retrain." Unlike other companies, of course, Con Edison has nowhere else to go.

Reasonably enough, employers connect the behavior they see on the job with what happens in New York City's classrooms. If the schools tolerate truancy, poor manners, and mediocre performance, they argue, what can you expect at work? The Board of Education says it has gotten the message from employers, but its response to date has been sadly beside the point. What would make a difference in training future workers is strict standards of learning and behavior. Instead, the Board of Education continues to pursue fancy new educational theories while allowing near chaos in the classroom.

One of the more recent educational fads to hit schools nationwide is the "school-to-work" concept, formalized in a vague 1994 federal law called the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. The essential idea is to make education more relevant to the workplace through "contextualized learning"—teaching math in a medical setting, for example—while building closer relations with employers. If schools in the inner city functioned at all adequately, perhaps educators could justify such experiments. In light of the actual conditions in most urban classrooms, however, any new program that distracts schools from teaching fundamentals and maintaining order is counterproductive.

Arlene Tomosoiu's ninth-grade business-skills course demonstrates the irrelevance of such "practical" education. Tomosoiu, a gregarious woman with a large mane of blond hair, is the official "school-to-work" coordinator at Martin Luther King Jr. High School behind Lincoln Center in Manhattan, a grandiose modern building whose metal detectors yield a steady harvest of box cutters and penknives. Her students have all chosen "business" as their high school concentration. But does the school prepare them for a business career?

At the start of a class in April, two girls wore their music headsets, another slouched with her head on the desk, and many students sat with their backpacks in their laps. Tomosoiu's foghorn call to take off the headsets eventually produced a sullen acquiescence, but within minutes one of the girls had hers back on. Tomosoiu ignored her for a while and then called out: "Simone, you're not listening to me!" Simone, a gawky, large-boned girl with crimson-streaked hair, pulled the headset down around her neck again, but as surely as helium rises, one earphone soon found its way back on.

Tomosoiu uses a prepackaged curriculum called "Work Achievement and Values in Education," which is sprinkled with such pop-psychology assignments as labeling behavior passive, aggressive, or assertive. The assignment that day concerned the impression that one's physical appearance makes on other people. Tomosoiu passed out a list of 16 factors for the students to consider: "wrinkled clothes," "chest showing," "daily bath or shower," "light-colored polish on nails," and so forth. The gist of the exercise was to rank the factors that would influence an employer in hiring an applicant.

First, however, came the formation of collaborative groups. Tomosoiu subscribes to the tenets of "collaborative" learning, yet another dearly beloved ed-school theory that fails in actual classrooms. Tomosoiu asked the students, densely packed in rows of chairs, to form several circles. Nothing happened. Simone, sit over there!" "No, I don' wanna sit over there!" "Fine, someone else then," said Tomosoiu. Eventually, the students dragged their chairs into a few clusters.

Tomosoiu stressed that the "groups" were to "reach a consensus" on the factors they considered most important, a seemingly utopian command in a classroom where order was already so fragile. A cacophony of chatter soon followed ("I can't concentrate like this; I need music!"), and minutes later most of the students had scribbled some numbers on their sheets—individually rather than collaboratively, of course. In the meantime one girl had stood up at the front of the room to snap a picture of her classmates, and another had busied herself sorting playing cards.

When emissaries from the various "groups" recited their lists, it was immediately clear that this ninth-grade class contained many fourth-grade readers: students stopped in the middle of words and phrases while barreling right through commas and periods. Tomosoiu then suggested that the students identify which factors were positive and which negative—an undemanding assignment unless someone thinks that "body odor" is a job qualification or "clean breath" a hindrance. But even this request produced some static, as Simone shouted out, "I didn't know what the hell `scuffed shoes' was!" The only moment of somewhat focused attention in the class came when a girl named Debby objected strenuously to the item "trimmed nails." "What is the problem with people today? They don't hire you because you have dirty nails!" she cried.

Tomosoiu bounced up to me afterward with a broad, satisfied smile and asked, "So, how'd you like my class?" When I expressed a certain amazement at its unbuttoned quality, she responded, "Oh, these kids are well-behaved compared to other classes." There is no reason to disbelieve her, and in her defense, she's struggling against chaotic home environments and parents who are often indifferent to education. But it is hard to imagine that anything from this class will stick when the students go for their first job interviews. If the students learned anything, it was that they can ignore authority with impunity. For such "progressive" education only exacerbates these children's already-hostile attitude toward authority. Sheila Gutter, project director for school-to-work programs in Manhattan, fretted to me about "chalk-and-talk" teachers who make their students sit in straight rows despite having movable chairs in their classrooms. If such teachers do indeed still exist, they deserve praise, not criticism. School may be the only source of socializing order in many of their pupils' lives.

Even schools focused on business themes, like the grandly titled High School of Economics and Finance and the Murry Bergtraum School for Business Careers, which now also enjoy federal support under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, fail to address the underlying reality of poor preparation and nonexistent socialization. An English teacher from the Wall Street-based and -supported High School of Economics and Finance told me that the students in his classes were "lost": they don't do the reading; they run wild in the classroom. Defenders of the school point to its much-touted weekly seminars with local CEOs and entrepreneurs. If students had already mastered reading, writing, and self-discipline, such variations on basic academic themes would be enriching. Given that they have not, any effort to forge "school-to-work" linkages or to "contextualize" learning to fit a work environment is misdirected.

Of course, traditional vocational education—frank and unapologetic preparation for a trade—is quite another matter, but that is not what school-to-work is about, as its advocates hasten to say. The city's educational bureaucrats are so terrified that someone will accuse them of promoting vocational education—vulnerable as it is to the hysterical charge of "tracking"—that Chancellor Rudy Crew has reportedly asked the Board of Education to refer to its programs not as "school-to-work" but as "school-to-career." Explains Manhattan school-to-work director Gutter: "The chancellor thinks there's a stigma attached to `work.'"

For New York's schools, the only connection to the real world that counts is the ability to turn out self-disciplined students who have mastered the rudiments of knowledge. Businessmen understand this. Last year the National Alliance of Business, the Business Roundtable, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed upon an education agenda that focused exclusively on elevating academic standards; it offered nary a word about school-to-work. In essence, it told schools: do what you once did best; we'll take care of the rest.

Throughout New York's history, a talented and energetic labor force has been one of the city's premier assets. Workers flocked to New York from the provinces and from abroad looking for an opportunity to make the most of their talents, and companies flourished here because they could find employees equal to almost any task. Today this is no longer the case: New York's labor force is a liability in important respects rather than an asset. So all the talk current today about saving the city's failed schools and reversing its culture of entitlement and passivity has an intensely practical urgency. The city's economic future depends on it.

 

 

 
Employers say that New York’s economic future depends on upgrading the quality of its workers.
City Journal Summer 1997.
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