Op-Ed: Restoring CUNY as launching pad to the middle class

I’ll be the first to say that Mayor Bloomberg has done an admirable job replacing the dwindling financial sector by fostering the growth of our nascent tech industry. But, if all we do as a city is swap one elite economy with another, we risk failing millions of New Yorkers who need good jobs that work for their lives.

It’s in creating an economy focused on jobs for the working and middle class that Mayor Bloomberg hasn’t delivered. It’s this New York where the Inequality Crisis is most desperate.

Part of the problem is that we’re not educating enough young people to tackle the jobs of tomorrow – or shift into the middle class.

The Bloomberg administration boasts an impressive record of attracting educated workers to New York City. Between 2000 and 2010, our city’s labor force gained 224,000 college graduates– a major turnaround since the decline we saw in the 1990s.

Sadly, analysts estimate that between 65 to 98 percent of these young professionals grew up outside the city. So, while we draw boatloads of employable college grads to the Big Apple, we’re not sowing nearly enough of our own seeds. That’s got to change.

The next mayor must prioritize job training and skill building if we want to prepare our youth for the jobs of the 21st century. To offer our young people a real shot at competing in today’s economy — and making a decent living while at it – the city must better link our public education system, our workforce training and our economic development programs. We can start by restoring CUNY as our city’s historical launching pad to the middle class.

Decades of state and city disinvestment have undermined CUNY’s traditional edge in educating high-skilled workers—and the cuts we’ve seen since 2008 have only added fuel to the fire.

In the past two decades, state aid to CUNY senior colleges has plummeted 35.4 percent, while aid to CUNY community colleges fell by 32.7 percent. This is unacceptable. We can’t lead globally, or even keep pace with nations like India and China, when we don’t invest enough in institutions of higher learning — something fundamental to our economic health.

We must reinvest the proceeds of reforming New York’s economic development subsidy programs to start making up for these budget cuts and years of disinvestment. New Yorkers need the quality, affordable higher education CUNY offers. It’s time to reassert CUNY’s role as a stepping stone to the middle class.

We need our schools to train more desirable, highly-qualified candidates. A tech industry boom for New York should also be an employment boom for our young people. Let’s commit to building our own talent pool through CUNY so that in 10 years, half of all middle-skill tech jobs are filled by our graduates.

This isn’t just about topping the charts in education and outpacing our competitors to bring the best and the brightest here – it’s about equipping our own workforce with the necessary tools to succeed. It’s about our city’s economic future.

Let’s open the doors of opportunity for more New Yorkers. Let’s reestablish CUNY as the gateway to the middle class.

Bill de Blasio is New York City public advocate.

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