The Equity Factor

Booming Transport Sector Means More Middle-Class Jobs

No degree required and rapid growth in NYC.

A Metropolitan Transit Authority subway train operator waits for a red-light signal. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

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New York’s population is massive, and expanding. Between 2010 and 2015 the population grew by 4.6 percent, going from a little under 8.2 million people to about 8.5 million last July in its strongest period of growth since the 1920s. While a majority portion of that has come from new births, the city’s net migration has remained steadily positive, meaning more people are moving in than moving out.

That means more workers, a growing tax base, and rising demand on the city’s network of public transit services to move people from borough to borough. And if there’s one area that’s already seeing the benefits of all this flux, it’s the transportation industry.

A new report published on Sept. 20 by the Center for an Urban Future highlights the fact that the transportation sector added jobs at a remarkable rate of 8.9 percent between 2013 and 2015. It wasn’t quite as robust of a performance as construction or hospitality — those industries were the two fastest growing, at rates of 13.9 percent and 11.6 percent respectively. But sectors like air transport, ground transport, transit and deliveries boomed.

According to Jonathan Bowles, executive director of CUF, that matters because transportation jobs are catalytic when it comes to giving low-income populations more upward mobility.

“Even though there’s been tremendous job growth in NYC, I think there’s still a real need to create and cultivate middle-class jobs,” says Bowles. “There are quite a few jobs that, like manufacturing, pay good wages and are accessible to many New Yorkers without a college degree, and that’s important.”

The report says transportation jobs pay an average of $53,417 a year, compared to $56,479 in manufacturing and $55,720 in construction. In 2015, transportation along with warehouse jobs employed 112,864 people throughout the city, while manufacturing stood at 77,213, or only about 2 percent.

When it comes to who’s getting these jobs, Bowles says New York already has a number of initiatives in place to help connect people from low-income backgrounds with transportation. Two of these are the Workforce1 Career Center and Sector Focused Career Centers programs, both backed by the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity. That second program caters to specific industries, and its transportation and industrial division works with local employers to help put veterans, the unemployed and low-income workers in touch with stakeholders ranging from delivery companies to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Of the 8,603 residents who enrolled in the center’s transit program between 2009 and 2011, 40 percent were African-American, 30 percent were Hispanic, and 70 percent were unemployed from the start. Forty percent had a high school diploma, while 38 percent had some college experience but no advanced degree. Nearly a year after they finished the program, 62 percent of graduates were still employed in the industry.

But the city’s efforts are not without their limits. A report by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office highlights that, each year, $500 million of city funding for workforce development programs ends up putting workers into low-wage jobs with little room for advancement. As a response, the city formed a workforce development joint task force of industry stakeholders and government officials to survey the system and figure out the best way to reallocate that $500 million. They targeted six areas — manufacturing, technology, food and hospitality, among others — but transportation wasn’t one of them.

Bowles thinks that, now more than ever, politicians should be targeting transit as a growth industry, especially when a more traditional conduit for middle-class jobs like manufacturing is showing signs of sluggish growth. (The letter from the mayor’s office reports that manufacturing lost 5,731 jobs while transportation and warehousing grew 1,846 jobs between 2009 and 2013, pressing right up against the period of data CUF looked at.)

Bowles looks at air transportation as one local sector that could use some assistance to really reach its job potential. “There’s a lot of jobs already there, but we haven’t seen quite as much growth in recent years, so that may be an area where there’s some opportunity for interventions, or economic development, that could help.”

Case in point: the Van Wyck Expressway. Trucks from companies like DHL, FedEx and UPS have to fight through congestion to deliver and pick up cargo from the JFK Airport in lower Queens, meaning those companies are paying their drivers to sit in traffic. Bowles testified in front of New York City Council back in 2003, petitioning the city to create better routes for cargo delivery trucks, and argues that New York is losing its market share as a leading U.S. air cargo hub because of this bottleneck.

Nearly 13 years have passed since then, but the problem still remains. “So many [cargo] companies have told me ‘We’re going to stop moving out of JFK and go to Chicago or Miami because our trucks are sitting on the Van Wyck Expressway both ways,” he says. “It’s time and money for their drivers if they’re not moving.”

The city’s population growth has knock-on effects on all transportation sectors, and with more movement comes a need for more dynamic logistics. But Joseph Kane, a senior research analyst and associate fellow at Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, says hailing transportation as the new savior for a broad spectrum of low-income workers only works if it’s treated as an addition, not an exception, to other industries that don’t require advanced degrees.

“Rather than looking at total levels of employment or even projected employment, by looking at the occupational level we can start looking more closely at the wages for each individual occupation, and then the barriers to entry into those occupations,” he says. “You can imagine a certificate or apprenticeship may be required for one type of transportation job, but then the skill requirements would be wildly different if you’re talking about logisticians, or distribution managers.”

Still, he says transportation-related jobs — including those that come with constructing new transportation infrastructure — have helped pave the way for a more robust middle class in cities across the U.S., even though no other city has the population size or economic prowess as New York.

“They have tremendous geographic breadth,” he says. “It makes sense if you think of logistics centers like Memphis with FedEx, Louisville with UPS, and Stockton — just coming out of bankruptcy but also a distribution hub.”

“The total size of the pie is different from market to market, but the share of workers in the [transportation] industry are fairly consistent from city to city,” he says, noting that that share amounts to about 11 percent of the total national workforce.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: new york citypublic transportationjobsincome inequality

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