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Workforce Development in the Blue Economy By Jenifer Becker

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

Jen Becker (center) speaking on a panel at Grand Central Tech after her presentation at “World Water Day: Our Blue Economy.”

Hurricane Sandy barreled through New York City and the East Coast five and a half years ago, bringing millions of gallons of water into our streets and in some cases, into our homes. Since then, the city has undertaken numerous initiatives to combat flood risk due to sea level rise and carbon-intensive energy use. Projects include: the BIG U, a proposal supported by the City of New York to protect 10 miles of Lower Manhattan’s coast from storms, and 80x50, a ‘roadmap’ from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

Despite these and other high-profile efforts, after five and a half years, many people and institutions have forgotten about the damage Sandy wrought and have reverted back to business as usual. The danger of this is not only that the city will be unprepared for the next major storm event, but that there will be severe economic consequences. As Daniel Zarrilli, New York City’s Chief Resiliency Officer, put it, “There’s coastal real estate at risk, consequences to job creation, and the natural impact of climate on the lowest income residents in New York City…People might have to move or migrate.” [1]

How can we protect our city and bring lower income New Yorkers into the fold? How can we consider water as a resource for advancing a more sustainable and equitable city, thoughtfully investing in not just physical resiliency but in social resiliency as well?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to these questions at “Our Blue Economy,” a conference at Grand Central Tech. The late March event, held on World Water Day, brought together sustainability and resiliency leaders from Rebuild by Design, the Harbor School, Dutch company Roof Doctors, and the Dutch Consulate, to talk about how we can use water resources to grow economies, and improve livelihoods and jobs. [2] My presentation centered on New York City’s resiliency labor market, a growing sector that not only aims to combat climate change, but to increase social resiliency for the city’s underemployed.

In recent years, two hallmark workforce development programs have sought to train low income New Yorkers in the hard and soft skills needed for resiliency-related and green construction careers.

One program is run through the Resiliency, Education, Training, and Innovation (RETI) Center. The Center was founded for the express purpose of acting as a local resiliency hub to create “new programming to help grow and sustain an economic future for New York City and open pathways for youth and underserved communities.” [3] RETI recently completed its second training cohort in green construction and solar panel installation. Training cohorts have consisted of 14 or 15 low-income individuals, most of whom are residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn. As green industries evolve, so too does RETI adjust its programming: the next cohort will instruct participants on roofing, a growth area with potential careers at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is also leading the way. As part of their green infrastructure program, DEP builds bioswales – curbside gardens that absorb water – and hires crews to install and maintain them. [4]

These initiatives are a first step to ensuring an inclusive blue economy in New York City – and one that continues to acknowledge and plan for the realities of climate change as a city that must learn to live with water. Resiliency is no longer an optional add on for building projects; we must shore up our physical and social environments against the rising tide.

Jen Becker is a Director at Karp Strategies, an urban planning consulting firm based in New York City. She is also a Senior Fellow for Economic Development at the Pratt Center for Community Development, and previously served as the Chief Sustainability Manager for the New York Power Authority.


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