“I’m so pleased to be here — especially at this time of year, when the autumn colors light up the region,” began New York Federal Reserve president and CEO John Williams, featured guest speaker at the conference on workforce development at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson on October 21. “In fact, my wife and I have fallen in love with this area — so much so that we are now splitting our time between Columbia County and New York City.”
Williams spoke in such folksy tones that few of the hundred or so attendees in the community college dining hall realized that he was reading a prepared script which within hours would appear in the world press.
“In the current environment, filling jobs can be a challenge,” Williams was quoted by the press agency Reuters as having said at Hudson. “Many are struggling to hire people, especially at the entry level in construction, nursing and manufacturing …. The skills gap is a big obstacle.”
The influence on policy of top civil servants like John Williams has been much in the news the last few years. A vast social distance separates elite bureaucrats like him from the ordinary people whose lives are much affected by governmental decisions. When should the public have confidence in expert opinion? When should the experts be viewed as members of a nefarious deep state whose self-serving pronouncements should be treated with great suspicion?
Dictionaries refer to the elite as “the most powerful, rich or talented people within a particular group or society.” Various sources define the word “elite” in significantly different ways.
It’s a heavily politicized term these days. On October 27, for instance, Philip Bump of the Washington Post argued that television commentator Tucker Carlson’s “war on the elites now embraces election denialism.” Bump said Carlson sees the fight for political power in the United States not as Democrats against Republicans but as a battle between a cluster of elites against the rest of America.
In an analysis of elites published in 2019, sociologists Bas Van Heur and David Bassens rejected such a priori definitions of elites. Elite research, they argued, “would benefit from paying more attention to boundary work between elites and non-elites, intra-elite competition and distinction, national state spaces in determining elite composition, and the urban sense of belonging of economic elites.”
The boundary work
John Williams brought a broad perspective to the local workforce development meeting in Hudson. Put in sociological terms, his message emphasized among other things the need for more effective boundary work.
The members of his Hudson audience, for the most part middle-aged or older, were employed in counseling, job training, economic development, non-profit management, teaching and kindred jobs. They were most familiar with the traditional skills required for traditional jobs.
Like their peers in other non-urban areas, the employers with whom these local experts interacted headed small or medium-sized organizations of long standing in their communities. The heart of the current national jobs problem is that employers can’t find the workers with the skills they need and that many workers don’t have the skills they need to move up the economic ladder. Closer employer engagement in workforce training is an important component of the solution the Fed puts forth.
Who is John Williams?
Williams provided supporting data about the depth of the local problem. In 2020, more than half of available job-seekers in Columbia and Greene counties had a high-school diploma or less, he said, and only a quarter had an associate’s degree or higher.
In an economy with high demand for labor, unemployment is concentrated among the less educated. Those with less schooling are less likely to remain employed or find new jobs.
The proportion of students graduating from high school in 2020 was 86 percent statewide, and those graduating with an advanced Regents degree 42 percent, state education data showed The corresponding figures for Ulster County were 87 percent and 41 percent — almost identical to the statewide numbers. Columbia County graduated 87 percent, 38 percent with an advanced Regents degree. Greene County lagged, with 82 percent graduating and only 31 percent earning an advanced Regents degree.
Though he didn’t say so at “Skilling the Gap: Building Local Talent for In-Demand Careers,” Williams himself is an outlier in terms of the predominant educational pattern of his upstate neighbors in Greene and Columbia counties. He earned his bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, his master’s at the London School of Economics, and his doctorate at Stanford University. Among his academic awards is membership in Phi Beta Kappa. An economic researcher by training, he had authored 62 published economic papers as of last year.
Williams is CEO of an organization of 3000 employees, the majority of whom are well-educated knowledge workers.
Keeper of the vault
It’s an old custom among rural people to stash a few dollars in an old sock in the bottom drawer of their bureau just in case. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York takes the habit literally to a new level at its headquarters at 33 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan. Its vaults in a well-fortified sub-basement 80 feet below street level hold more than a half-billion dollars in gold bars.
Should John Williams be able to distribute the gold in the vaults equally among his 62,000 neighbors in Columbia County – he can’t, most of it belongs to the central banks of dozens of nations – every living soul in Columbia County would find themselves about $10,000 richer for the holiday season.
Williams served as president of the San Francisco Fed for seven years before coming to the top job New York Fed four years ago. He is ex-officio vice-chair of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which meets eight times a year to review economic and financial conditions, and to determine the appropriate stance of monetary policy.
The twelve members of the FOMC, including Williams in a key role, are the masters of the American economic universe.
It is largely they, civil servants all, who decide how United States inflation should be fought.
That role doesn’t please everybody, particularly the theorists of the deep state.
“Every presidential administration finds some degree of internal resistance. That which has confronted the Trump administration, however, seems to be the most active and aggressive ever,” counseled the American Institute for Economic Research “…. A large and active bureaucratic resistance is at work to stymie many of the executive branch’s goals.”
Fighting inflation at this time means tightening the money supply, thereby slowing economic growth. As a British economics magazine recently explained it, the FOMC hopes to start a chain reaction from less investment to less economic growth to lesser demand to less inflation. They must try to figure out how to manage that feat without triggering a serious recession.
This Friday, November 4, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York will host “Inflation: Risks, Implications, and Policies,” a hybrid research symposium focused on the implications of high inflation and the policies needed to combat it. The symposium will feature presentations on inflation and financial markets, inflation and inequality, inflation expectations, and disinflation policies.
Though his personal expertise is in monetary policy, Williams’ New York Fed sees itself as a significant locus of research about endemic economic inequality (referred to as “traditionally marginalized groups”).
Williams, itinerant preacher at events around the Fed’s Second District (New York, southwestern Connecticut, northern New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands) bestows the results of Fed research to local economic understanding. That was one of the roles he was playing in Hudson. He played it with a comfortable elan — earnest, serious, informative and engaged.
Collaboration is key
Williams’ large staff of competent researchers periodically contribute to the Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog.
In 2018, four Fed economists, Jaison R. Abel, Tony Davis, Richard Deitz and Edison Reyes, wrote a blog about how New York State’s community colleges were partnering with employers.
Williams may have been to some degree playing to the crowd in his declaration that the role of community colleges could not be overstated.
“Employer engagement by community colleges occurs when employers work with these educational institutions to shape how students are trained,” Abel et al. had written. “It has become an increasingly important strategy for community colleges to help their students build the right skills for available jobs, and to help local employers find and retain workers with the skills they need.”
A survey the researchers took showed employer engagement by community colleges as the norm. “About 40 percent have a budget earmarked specifically for employer engagement, and around 90 percent of those surveyed have at least some staff dedicated to employer engagement efforts.”
Most community colleges, particularly rural ones, say they do not have enough financial resources or staff to expand their employer engagement efforts, however. Over a quarter of rural community colleges lack outreach staff.
Community colleges recognize that employer engagement is a promising and worthwhile endeavor for employers, students and workers alike. Because of a lack of outreach resources. it’s easier for them to concentrate on relationships with traditional employers who hire students who’ve taken courses in medical assistance and nursing, criminal justice or hospitality management.
Nearby mile-long Warren Street, the reputed Brooklyn North of the Hudson Valley, was not mentioned as a source for apprenticeships. More evolved digital enterprises popping up everywhere would make good candidates for outreach.
Boundary work can take workforce development only so far. Better transportation and improved broadband help, as Williams noted.
An alternate path
But there’s another traditional path. It’s called migration. As we were reminded during the pandemic and as another speaker at the conference, Adam Bosch, CEO of Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress, provided data for the conference on, it comes in two types: out-migration and in-migration.
One is reminded of Jane Austen’s famous advice to a young woman: “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
To the exurban folks of the Hudson Valley, that’s what New York City is for. And what places like Kingston and New Paltz in this footloose age would aspire to be for.