Anchor tenants

Higher education is an important industry in the Hudson Valley. Of the approximately 100,000 students in the mid-Hudson region’s colleges and universities, about half are enrolled in the SUNY system and the other half in independent, non-profit institutions of higher learning. Institutional payroll at all these schools is more than a billion dollars a year, and more than 20,000 people have jobs in them. That’s about half as many people in the region as work in manufacturing.

The value of enhanced educational attainment in yielding economic benefits is well recognized, as are the benefits of a highly educated workforce to social productivity. As management guru Peter Drucker famously put it in 1999 in an early use of the term knowledge worker, “The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

In 2011, the average earnings of full-time, year-round workers 18 and older with an advanced degree (bachelor’s degree or higher) was $81,761, according to the Census Bureau. Workers whose highest degree was a bachelor’s had earnings of $70,459. Earnings for full-time, year-round workers with a high-school diploma (includes GED certificate) was $40,634, while workers with less than a ninth-grade education had $26,545 earnings.

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On Monday, August 19, the region’s private colleges and the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU) hosted an event at Mount Saint Mary’s in Newburgh called the “Mid-Hudson Independent Higher Education Forum: Brainpower, Partnerships and Resources for Our Region.” Partnerships between the private colleges and those seeking to hire students were discussed. The moderator was regional director Aimee Vargas of Empire State Development. Panelists were Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt of the Children’s Media Project, Marsha Gordon of The Business Council of Westchester, Al Samuels of the Rockland Business Association, and Judith Mills, head of human resources at Mediacom.

We hear a lot these days about job retention. This panel discussion was about talent retention. One program brochure suggested a slightly more nuanced theme: “Think Globally, Hire Locally: A Dialogue About Working With Campuses to Attract and Retain Talent.”

A big part of the pitch was to support the partnership between local colleges and local businesses. Send young people to local independent colleges and train educated young people to do local jobs.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, champion of everything Empire State, sends two of his daughters to independent colleges, but not in the Empire State. Cara is leaving this week for Harvard and Mariah for Brown.

Something terrible can happen whenever you arrange a program about job opportunities for local college students. Such an event can too easily become a gripe session among the gatekeepers of the human-resources universe. And that in large part was what happened in Newburgh this Monday morning.

It’s perfectly true that businesses can serve an important role, as panelist Judith Mills, vice president of human resources of Mediacom, said, “in exposing people to the real work environment.” Mechanisms like internships, school-connected business incubators and work placement build a bridge between business in a region and its private colleges.

Nor was another panelist, Al Samuels of the Rockland Business Association, joking when he said that businesses were looking for recent college grads with experience (this self-contradictory line got a laugh from the 60 attendees). For young knowledge workers, a combination of both education and experience is desirable. To increase their value in the workplace, students needed to continue in the classroom even while interning, Samuels said.

 

Persistent obsolescent thinking

The predominant focus, however, was on employer selection processes and requirements rather than on what young people might have to offer. Shades of The Organization Man and Mad Men. Like Samuels, Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt of the Children’s Media Project gave lip service to “teaching the skills to think differently.” But the emphasis was more on such code phrases as “teaching students how to present themselves,” on the burning issues of slovenly clothing, inappropriate demeanor, limp handshakes and not looking the interviewer in the eye. Moderator Aimee Vargas, head of the regional office of Empire State Development, good-naturedly complained about not being able to read body language on Skype (there’s little disputing that new communications technology makes cultural screening more difficult).

Whatever happened to the basic question which in theory should transcend cultural differences: Can the applicant do the job? Knowledge work often makes familiar visual cultural cues irrelevant.

Al Samuels said he was wondering last year whether to hire a kid to work on his organization’s computers. The kid wanted to do some of his work at home, so Samuels didn’t hire him. In retrospect, Samuels thinks he was wrong. “I made a mistake.” Samuels told the attendees.

The tough job market allows obsolescent thinking to persist. Young people suffer the most — as they always have — from the decrease in job mobility. Fewer oldsters retire, so there are even fewer jobs for young people. For the few available jobs, college graduates edge out people with lower and sometimes more recent qualifications. With education or without, young people choose to seek jobs outside the region.

 

First career job locations

Think it’s all a matter of a positive attitude? The Mid-Hudson Valley region labor market increased less than one per cent from July of last year to July of this year (907,000 to 914,900; in Ulster County it increased from 59,600 to 59,800), according to the state labor department.

In the past year, the number of non-farm jobs in the state have increased by 129,300. Of these, 111,900 were below the Westchester County line with New York City. By my simple reckoning, then, there were only 17,400 new jobs above that county line, of which 7900 were in the Hudson Valley. Graduates of Hudson Valley colleges are responding to the marketplace. To use a time-worn phrase, they’re voting with their feet. Where would you advise your children to take their first career jobs?

The private colleges of the Hudson Valley are a mixed bag, including classic liberal-arts schools like Vassar, Sarah Lawrence and Bard, New York City-area schools with Mid-Hudson campuses, colleges with a continuing strong religious tradition like Mount Saint Mary’s, a variety of vocational and specialty schools, and finally a variety of hard-to-categorize independent colleges.

In her short presentation, Laura Anglin, president of the Albany-based CICU, reminded the audience both of the steady growth of the private-college sector in the Hudson Valley and of its stability. She used a business analogy. “We’re anchor tenants in our communities,” she said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

 

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