NYC Shortfalls Worst in 3 Key Industries

By Daniel Massey

Feb. 28, 2008

Facing a shortage of nurses, Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx turned to an unlikely prospect: clerical worker Ewa Stasiewicz. The hospital sent the Brooklyn mother of two to nursing school—for free.

“They were paying for my tuition and my books, and I was getting my regular salary,” says Stasiewicz, 32, who began her studies at the College of Staten Island in 2003.

Three years later, she swapped her 9-to-5 job at Jacobi for 12-hour shifts on a medical/surgical floor.

Health care is one of a handful of industries across New York City in the vanguard of the battle for talent. Because of especially high demand, health care, engineering and online advertising are suffering from acute worker shortages.

Confronting the reality that even higher salaries aren’t sufficient to draw new employees to their fields, businesses in all three industries have turned to education for the answer. They are focusing their efforts not only on luring individuals already working in those fields, but also on producing new ones.

“It’s very competitive, which is why we look at building training programs and hiring from undergrads,” says Pete Stein, general manager for the New York office of online ad firm Avenue A|Razorfish, which has 50 to 60 openings.

The wider business world might take note. More than 77 million baby boomers are expected to retire by 2020, and only about 40 million workers will be available to take their places. In New York City—where roughly one in six workers are 55 or older—shortages are expected across key industries.

Beyond pay raises
Engineering firms, online advertising companies and health care providers have found that when shortages are severe, raising pay isn’t enough to attract workers. Organizations in all three sectors have raised pay for workers in recent years. Then they’ve had to go further.

For instance, the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp. is increasing starting salaries for its nursing workforce, which now numbers 7,100, to $66,000 from $55,000. But it also is reaching out to low-income New Yorkers, hoping to persuade at least 400 of them to become nurses by offering scholarships for its Nurse Career Ladder program. Last year, 140 aspiring nurses graduated from various HHC education programs.

Jing Lee, 26, of Flushing, Queens, was among them. Lee received a full $40,000 scholarship to attend Pace University’s accelerated three-semester nursing program for students with bachelor’s degrees. In exchange, she committed to working at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn for four years.

“Nursing had always been in the back of my mind,” says Lee, who majored in business at SUNY Binghamton. “It’s a career where I can contribute to the community.”

The Visiting Nurse Service of New York has also rethought the way it recruits. VNS formerly hired only nurses who had a bachelor’s degree and medical/surgical experience. But given a scarcity of candidates, it began hiring inexperienced nurses and training them in home care.

The agency recently started recruiting nurses with associate degrees. VNS used a grant from the Jonas Center for Nursing Excellence to examine the differences between two- and four-year programs, and teamed with Queensborough Community College to develop an internship program that helps bridge the gaps.

The longer it takes to train workers in a field, the more difficult it is to cope with shortages. While nurses require a few years of training, engineers need rigorous math and science education, beginning in primary school.

The shortage of engineers has been exacerbated by the New York City building boom. With construction booming in lower Manhattan and on the Far West Side and with new stadiums going up in Queens and the Bronx, firms have been stretched thin.

“We’re not getting enough talent coming into the engineering field from the grade schools and the high schools,” says Nina Weber, director of career services at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, which tries to pique grade-schoolers’ interest in the profession. “Engineering needs people with backgrounds in science and math.”

Engineering leaders across the state are working to sell their profession to young people. The American Council of Engineering Companies of New York recently produced an eight-minute video featuring young engineers. One speaks of his pride in helping reconstruct the Third Avenue Bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx. Another excitedly tells of the tunnels he’s designing for the East Side Access project.

Mentoring programs that produce aspiring engineers like Nubia Castaño are taking on growing importance. The 26-year-old from Maspeth, Queens, is preparing to start a master’s program in transportation engineering at City College.

Early intervention
Castaño remembers attending a presentation by Metropolitan Transportation Authority engineers when she was a high schooler participating in the ACE Mentor Program.

“They showed what transportation engineers do and what kinds of projects they have,” Castaño says. “For me, it had a big impact.”

Companies say that alliances with educational institutions do pay off, even if it takes a while.

Avenue A is hiring straight out of universities, tapping 30 new graduates last year. The company designed a six-month boot camp, in which each newcomer is handed a trial project and paired with a mentor. G2 Direct & Digital has a 12-week training program that concludes with employees making presentations to senior management.

Many agency executives participate in student portfolio reviews, keeping an eye open for top talent that will soon be ready to enter the workforce. In a world in which many young people are more tech-savvy than their elders, the focus on recent graduates has its benefits.

“People coming out of school haven’t known the world without the Web,” says Avenue A’s Stein. “They’re able to add value very quickly.”

Regardless of the industry, the hard work for businesses begins once the recruiting is done. Hospitals can find and cultivate employees like Stasiewicz, but if those workers don’t stay on the job, it’s all for naught.

“It’s not just recruit, recruit, recruit,” says Denise Soares, the chief nurse executive at Jacobi. “Yes, we recruit, but we have to retain our staff. That is the key.”

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