2016-12-07 / Front Page

Queens College Holds Business Forum Breakfast

By Thomas Cogan

Kathryn Wylde, president and chief operating officer of Partnership for New York City, was the speaker at this year’s last Business Forum Breakfast at Queens College on December 2.  The title of her address, delivered at the school’s student union building, was “What Makes New York City Great?”  She was speaking at a time when, as she said, the city is greater and more powerful than ever.  But after praising the city for its dynamism she issued an extensive warning that difficulties which could become massive and crippling are now confronting New York and must be addressed.  Perhaps the main three are infrastructure, education and immigration, all of which have made New York great but must be rescued from the clear and present possibility of a wearing-away that could bring both greatness and the city down.

She began by recalling the truly distressing days of the 1970s when New York had to declare bankruptcy, its power and greatness appeared to be declining rapidly and it was, in her words, “almost written off.”  Money and population were deserting the city and talk of a reduced state of existence for New York became conventional wisdom.  She said that the comeback was accomplished largely by “the people of New York,” though in truth, help was provided by much-maligned Wall Street (“We all like to dump on Wall Street,” she said), which rallied in the 1980s and money returned in force.  Now, the city is larger than ever; has more jobs than ever; is well educated; and has a diverse economy, she said.  (Mention of diversity led her to praise Borough President Melinda Katz, for whom it is a mantra.)  She repeated former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s description of New York as “the safest big city in America.”  Speaking personally, she said she was sold on New York when first she became familiar with its vibrant and diverse neighborhoods and decided to leave her home country, “the homogenous Midwest,” behind. 

But now, if we New Yorkers are “at the peak of our power,” new threats to it must be considered.  The struggle to recover in the 1970s was aided by state and federal funds, but now it is the state that has been weakened and the current federal government will not likely assist a city that’s in trouble again.  At present it is not; but Wylde spelled out some bad situations that left alone can only get much worse.  Consider for instance that any and all tunnels under the Hudson River probably don’t have 10 years left.  Repairing them will cause great disruption that, for instance, ferry and water taxi service will hardly begin to remedy.  Those two airports in Queens are responsible for three-quarters of all flight delays in the U.S., she said (to a smattering of perverse applause), so their plight and ours is obvious.

She moved from infrastructure to employment, specifically of youth, who, she said, must hunt for jobs despite the fact that engagement with employers is poor and internships are rare.  It’s a familiar warning that work requirements are getting more sophisticated while workers with obsolete knowledge are not, but that hasn’t stimulated a sufficient drive for improvement.  She said that employers have to be made to see and believe that relationships with training must be developed, adding that the way we separate such development from schooling “is just a big mistake.”  Schools and training sources don’t track the results of their training and wind up teaching busywork to their students.  Even the common expedient of using immigrants as a labor resource is threatened in the anti-immigration atmosphere that has taken hold.

A question from the audience about vocational education led her to lament what she saw as the disparagement of it in the past 40 years, as the dream of making everybody college-educated was adopted.  Vocational education must be revived, she said, and old certification laws must be replaced by new ones.  She wondered where the intermediaries are who can help youth to become employed and how school-employer relations, currently in a poor state, can be bettered.  As for state incentives for internships, they are meager but perhaps the coming administration and Congress will be amenable to government assistance and tax breaks in behalf of them, she said hopefully.  New York can maintain its dominance, she believes, but cannot take it for granted and must work unceasingly to maintain it.  

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