Leader to Leader: Jose Ortiz Jr.

Jose Ortiz Jr., CEO of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.

Jose Ortiz Jr., CEO of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition. Submitted

Leader to Leader is a monthly column that looks at issues of leadership in the New York City nonprofit sector. Each month, the column will feature a conversation with a different nonprofit executive who is wrestling with an interesting challenge. How do you take a good idea up to scale? What are the best ways to raise money without losing your soul? When is it time to hang it up? Leader to Leader will explore these questions and more. 

Over time, the goal is to cover a broad range of organizations in various stages of development, from start-ups to mergers to agencies in need of top-to-bottom overhaul. Leader to Leader is written by Greg Berman, who served for nearly two decades as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.

The New York City Employment and Training Coalition seeks to be the voice of New York’s workforce development community. The coalition is composed of 180 organizations – ranging from small, community-based organizations to the City University of New York -- that provide job training and related services to more than a half million New Yorkers.  

This work has become even more important in the wake of COVID-19. Estimates vary, but it is likely that New York City lost more than 600,000 jobs thanks to the pandemic.  These losses hit vulnerable populations, including New Yorkers of color and other historically marginalized groups, particularly hard.

As the CEO of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, Jose Ortiz Jr. is working to ensure that New York City’s recovery includes preparing workers for a changing economy. “We can’t just go back to the way our economy worked before [the pandemic], because it didn’t work for everyone. Workforce development is the connective tissue between community and the economy. Without it, far too many will not be able to productively participate in the recovery — with the potential for dire consequences to our city’s economy,” Ortiz said in an interview with the Daily News last month. 

In this conversation, Ortiz talks about the short and long-term challenges facing the workforce development community, the employment platforms of the various mayoral candidates, and the intricacies of managing a diverse, inter-agency coalition. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Berman: I grew up a Marvel Comics guy, so I'm interested in origin stories. Let's start at the beginning. As a little kid, did you imagine that you were going to be a nonprofit executive when you grew up? 

Ortiz: I started buying comic books when I was eight years old at my first job packing bags at a grocery store where my aunt worked. I did not originally see myself as a nonprofit leader, but I always found myself gravitating towards nonprofit work. There are multiple reasons for that. I'm a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised here in the Bronx and East Harlem where both of my parents are from. Throughout my educational experience and my early professional career, I continually worked in nonprofit environments, including the 92nd Street Y, which was a really important institution here in New York City, but also incredibly important for my professional upbringing. 

My mother was a municipal worker. She worked in the Tweed building on Chambers Street. And so I grew up being around leadership in the city.  I got to meet different commissioners as well as deputy mayors and folks of that nature. I originally saw myself as essentially a political operative before finding myself knee-deep working in nonprofit and human services.  Eventually I came across the area of workforce development and jobs.

Berman: You mentioned your exposure to civic leaders.  Are there one or two people -- either that you worked with directly or that you saw from afar -- that made you think, “I want to model my leadership style after them”?

Ortiz: Not necessarily, but there are certainly people that I came across that took a liking to me. I'm a firm believer that no one makes it to anywhere in their life, regardless of their socioeconomic status, without support and a helping hand. So I've had a lot of folks in my life that I would consider friends and mentors that have provided me with guidance. There were many people, whether they were counselors in my Boys Club or teachers in my high school, which is Milton Academy, the prep school in Massachusetts, or folks like Henry Timms who was the associate director of the 92nd Street Y, but now is the President of Lincoln Center. I’m a lifelong learner. I constantly gravitate towards people who I believe are going to support me personally and professionally. 

Berman: I have been a part of coalitions in my professional life and I know that they can be pretty wonky sometimes. How do you keep together dozens of diverse organizations, all of whom I assume have an opinion about how you should be spending your time and what the coalition should be doing?

Ortiz: I think the first answer to that question is “delicately.” We have 180 members, and I consider them all to be invaluable partners.  And then there are our partners in business and government and philanthropy.  We want to be responsive to the field in order to create system change. So, yes, it's incredibly complicated.  There are always a lot of different opinions and perspectives.  But I see my role as sharing information about what's happening across the field and developing recommendations that are going to have the highest level of impact for the populations that we serve, which are marginalized New Yorkers who are looking to improve their lives, their careers, and the standing of their families.

Berman: You were appointed to serve on the mayor’s advisory council on restarting the economy. I have also seen you quoted in the papers criticizing City Hall about how they are allocating federal aid. I'm curious to hear what you think about when you want to be inside the halls of power whispering in the ears of government and when you want to be outside, banging on the door and speaking truth to power. 

Ortiz: I think it's complicated. It is impossible to get our work strengthened in terms of public policy and/or investment without being part of the discussion. We simply cannot change the dynamic for our field without having both a strong inside and outside game. And while it is very difficult at times, depending on who is leading the administration, it is absolutely essential that sometimes we are pushing a little bit harder from an external perspective.  

Berman: Over the past year or so you convened a number of different conversations with the various mayoral candidates.  What was your takeaway in terms of how the mayoral candidates were thinking about workforce development issues?

Ortiz: We did 10 fireside chats, beginning with Shaun Donovan back in August 2020, and ending with Andrew Yang in April. We also did a mayoral forum that was moderated by our friend Errol Louis of NY1. To your question, I think there were some individuals that had a higher understanding and competency with regards to workforce and others that maybe had a little bit less. I think there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of educating these leaders -- and the leaders of the new administration.  There's often a conversation around jobs, but not necessarily the training that's required in order to fill those jobs. I think over the course of the last year, conducting those chats, we were able to position ourselves as a leader that represents a large portion of the voices in this space.  We were also able to make sure that candidates included jobs and training in their platforms. So I consider the chats a success.

Berman: What's your assessment of how Eric Adams talked about these issues on the campaign trail, considering that he's the likely winner of the race?

Ortiz: I think that Eric has been a strong voice in this space. I think that he is certainly seeing our platform and it appears that he's adopted certain portions of that platform. But I definitely would encourage the next mayor, be that Eric or someone else, to strongly consider working directly with advocates like us to continue to refine his plan to ensure that more New Yorkers are getting back to work.

Berman: Speaking of Errol Louis, he wrote an op-ed not too long ago where he highlighted that there is a mismatch between the job openings in New York and the skills of those who are currently unemployed. Is that your assessment as well?

Ortiz: I think this last year has set up a number of changes in the economy that had been projected to happen over the next 10 to 20 years. A significant portion of jobs are either being automated or are changing in significant ways.  The innovation is occurring so quickly.  Job training providers have to be very adept to develop programs that are going to fill the jobs of tomorrow. That is always a challenge, but I think it just became exponentially more difficult given the changing nature of work over the last year. So, yes, there is a skills mismatch at times, but that is not to say that there's not a significant portion of the population here in New York City that is well-qualified and well-positioned to take on new jobs if they just had some adaptive training to help them take that next step. There’s another portion of the population that requires a tremendous amount of support before they can enter a job training program. Bridge programs are for people that have specific skills deficits that prevent them from qualifying for a job training program. And that population is increasing because of a lack of success that they have had within the school system or the inability of the school system to adapt to the different learning needs of those populations. 

Berman: How do workforce development organizations need to adapt to the changing landscape? Should they just keep doing what they're doing or do they need to do something different?

Ortiz: I think some of our work is to keep doing what we're doing, but we always have to be adapting to a changing economy. Part of the reason why we work with businesses and government agencies and elected officials and foundations and other partners in the human services sector is so that we can have a comprehensive understanding of where the gaps are. Job training providers need to continue to be very close to the business sector to understand what their talent needs are, how they're evolving over time, and the implications of technology. They need to use this to inform the development of their curriculum so they can ensure that they are able to get people, not just a job, but a good job with a living wage that will enable them to support a family and thrive here in New York City. We can always do that better, but I think we have some of the best organizations in the country that are providing job training here in New York City. These organizations are providing training in tech, in healthcare, in construction, in green economies, as well as in retail and commerce and things of that nature. 

Berman: My understanding is that New York suffered deeper job losses during the pandemic than other cities. Is that right?

Ortiz: We absolutely did. We were the epicenter of the pandemic from the beginning.  And because of the nature of how employers work here, our job losses continued to be at a higher level than they were nationally. There are significant implications in terms of the loss of specific retail jobs and brick-and-mortar jobs for the populations that we serve. We have an immediate challenge to get people back to work in a rapid and safe fashion.  And we have a long-term challenge to ensure that we are developing strong local talent pipelines. 

Berman: What's your sense of where we are in terms of recovering jobs? 

Ortiz: I would say that, while the recovery has been better than many folks anticipated, the population that we serve, which is the most marginalized New Yorkers, is at the highest risk of seeing their jobs lost not just in the short-term, but in the long-term as well.

Berman: You talked about the long-term talent pipeline.  Walk me through what role you think high schools should be playing and how they should be thinking about workforce development.

Ortiz: I think the entirety of the educational system needs to be thinking about workforce development, not just high school. We need the K-12 system, and we need the higher education system, to think about how their curriculum aligns with jobs, not just now, but also in the future. That means exposing our children at the youngest ages to STEM programs and to learning how to code. The K-12 system has to be a part of the solution. We need to take a generational approach.  Right now, there is a gap between education and the workforce system that does not have to exist.

Berman: Is another problem that we have employers who are demanding bachelor’s degrees for jobs, where that really shouldn't be a requirement?

Ortiz: I think a number of employers still operate within the confines of traditionally existing structures, which suggest that particular careers require somebody to have a degree. And maybe not just a degree, but a degree from a top 25 university or liberal arts college. There is increasing data that suggests that specific skills are required to fill these jobs that don't necessarily require a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree of any kind. And so what we are trying to do is to work with businesses to better educate them on different strategies that they can deploy in order to hire non-traditional talent.  This means changing hiring practices in order to ensure that people who have appropriate skills, but may not have a degree, have access to those jobs. 

Berman: There has been a lot of advocacy work in recent years to try to get employers to be more receptive to people that have been involved in the criminal justice system. What's your sense of how good a job New York City employers are doing in that regard?

Ortiz: I think there is an unnecessary stigma associated with some individuals that have had justice involvement.  As you know, organizations like Fortune Society, Osborne Association, STRIVE, Center for Employment Opportunities, the HOPE Program, and many others are doing exceptional work right now in this area, but there's a lot more work to be done here. 

Berman: Do you see it as part of your job to work with New York City employers to try to change their organizational cultures? Or is that beyond your remit?

Ortiz: If we are not seeing that as a portion of our work, we're not going to have the highest level of impact that we can. We can build strong relationships with employers and help them find new pipelines that will diversify the workforce. I mean that not strictly in terms of race or ethnicity – I mean diversifying the life experiences, bringing in more folks that have disabilities and more folks with justice involvement. I think one of our ultimate jobs as an organization is to ensure that there's equity in terms of the development of a strong economy here in New York City. Obviously, diversifying the workforce in terms of ethnicity and culture is one part of a larger problem that we need to address.

Berman: Where are you in terms of coming back to work post-COVID? Have you brought everyone back into the office?

Ortiz: Right now, we're hybrid, but I've been coming into the office somewhere between three and five days a week since November. I allowed for my team to be entirely virtual until the vaccine came out. Our team is now 100% vaccinated, but we don't intend to be full in-person for the foreseeable future because people have different lives and some can be more productive from their home versus in the office. We're going to continue to be a hybrid model, but we will certainly have in-person meetings because the nature of our work requires face-to-face interaction.

In the long-term, we all have to adapt. Many of our member organizations are doing hybrid in-person and virtual programs now, in order to achieve a higher level of scale and to support populations that are not yet comfortable with coming back into a physical space. Work is just very different than it was in early March 2020. And that is likely to stay for the foreseeable future.