ICYMI: Union-Backed Center Polishes Skills, Broadens Education
As Jobs’ Complexity Grows, Murphy Institute Helps Bridge Knowledge Gap

The Chief
By Bob Hennelly

A PLACE TO GROW: Esther Murray and Anthony Scruggs both found the Murphy Institute a nurturing place where they could hone their educations and develop skills that allowed them to get more out of their jobs. Mr. Scruggs said that when he began he was concerned that his fellow students were all smarter than him, and ‘The biggest surprise was that I was able to do it. I cried when I graduated.’

Over the next five years, more than a third of New York City’s municipal workforce will be retiring. That is a lot of succession-planning, and union officials tell this newspaper that city workers who want to advance during this massive generational shift are going to have to hit the books.

“Over the next five years, 120,000 city workers will retire, and we really need the professional public employees that remain to be up to the challenges that lay ahead,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, which has 125,000 members.

Tech Driving Changes
The decades between when retiring city workers first started their careers with the city and now mark a period of unprecedented change in both America’s public- and private-sector workplaces. In 2014, Government Technology magazine reported that local governments were already years into a full embrace of the latest technology to meet expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy public.

In the mid-1990s, the NYPD’s CompStat program set the standard nationally for local governments’ use of stat programs and data analytics to measure and improve their performance. Nowhere was the impact of the advance of technology more evident than in health care, where the imperative became reducing hospital stays and promoting outpatient and in-home care.

All these changes have an impact on how workforces are managed as well. And, as in the case of the recent NYC H+H white-collar layoffs, entire layers of management are being eliminated, with the slack being picked up by the remaining managerial workforce.
Whether in the public or private sector, there’s no escaping the reality that the ever-advancing technology and knowledge itself requires that employees be open to advancing their education throughout their entire career. According to a recent Pew Center survey of employment trends, “the number of workers in occupations requiring average to above-average education, training and experience increased from 49 million in 1980 to 83 million in 2015, or by 68%.”

Need Skills to Advance
The Pew survey found that more than half (54 percent) of adults in the labor force believed it would be “essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace. And 35 percent of workers, including about three in 10 (27 percent) adults with at least a bachelor’s degree, say they don’t have the education and training they need to get ahead at work.”

To help workers weather the turbulence ahead, DC 37 is building on its long relationship with the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute [emphasis added]. The institute was established in collaboration with city labor unions in 1984 at Queens College to serve the higher-education needs of working adults. It started with just 52 students, and today serves more than 1,500 who are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs. CUNY plans on elevating it to being one of the university’s schools by next fall.

DC 37 has 125,000 members within 51 locals that represent 1,000 civil-service job titles that encompass jobs from crossing guard to scientist. As a consequence, Mr. Garrido said, any successful continuing adult-education strategy has to be tailored individually to meet the needs and life situation of the would-be student, remarking, “Obviously, with the adult learner, you are talking about people that are bread-winners that have children and may even have two jobs.”

He continued, “What we have done is relaunched our education program, and we have committed to provide the members that want it an individual assessment of just where they are at, which helps them get a sense of what their skills are currently and where they need to be so they can attain their own goals for professional development. Whether it be registered nurses or engineers, they all need to have a path to help them stay current by upgrading their information base so they evolve with their professions, which in turn insures they will continue to have upward mobility.”

‘Murphy’s the Facilitator’
Mr. Garrido said the union was working with CUNY to develop courses designed for specific cohorts of workers based on their vocational skills. “Whether it be IT, health-care, or green-job technology, we see Murphy as the facilitator,” Mr. Garrido said. “In essence, CUNY is lined up to be the incubator of the new city workforce [emphasis added]. What you will see is collaboration to develop relevant courses with city agencies like DoITT, DCAS, the School Construction Authority, HRA, NYC H+H. The city needs this trained workforce, and so it is in the long-term interest of these agencies to help with our basic assessments. The reality is you can’t get training for these jobs off the supermarket shelf.”

The union leader said that there was no better example of the need for workers to be nimble in the years ahead than in the health-care industry. “For decades we have had hospital-based care, but that has shifted to outpatient, and so we now know health-care providers have to be more mobile because of the major way the practice of medicine has evolved.”

Charlie Wortmann is the founder and president of ERI, a national workforce education company that over the last 25 years has offered 10,000 training and skills-development courses in 250 cities. ERI also offers individual courses of study that can serve as a critical bridge back to college for the returning adult student. “We don’t call it basic skills but the Center for Independent Learning,” he said in a phone interview. “This is the program where the course is truly shaped by what the student wants to achieve. Say that they want to improve their math or writing skills, they can do it on their terms.”

Helps At Home, Too
He continued, “The payoff goes well beyond their increased capabilities at work, but it helps them in their private lives with their families and their children whom they can now help with the new math.”

In the abstract, the notion of adults going back to school mid-career seems like a no-brainer, but in the real world there are lots of obstacles. There’s family, work and in many cases, considerable self-doubt after so many years out of the classroom. According to a national survey of older, non-traditional returning students, personal insecurity was a major stumbling block, with over 50 percent surveyed admitting that they were stressed out that they didn’t possess the intellectual capability to handle the college coursework.

That was the case for Anthony Scruggs, 46, the executive vice president of DC 37’s Local 768, which represents dozens of titles from Social Worker to Physician Assistant.
A single parent since he was 16, Mr. Scruggs, who is from Far Rockaway, Queens, said, “I left high school because I had to work two jobs to raise a family.” At 20, he fit in getting his GED. In 1992, he went to the Institute of Applied Medical Technologies and earned a certification in electrical cardiograph reading and went on to get his Emergency Medical Technician certification at CUNY’s Bronx Education Opportunity Center.

Waste of Money, Time
But his next attempt at educational advancement turn­ed out to be a costly fiasco. “I signed up at Taylor Business Institute and it cost me $5,000 and the credits were worthless and non-transferable,” he said. In 2006, state regulators ordered Taylor to shut down. He got back on track getting his associate’s degree from Queensborough Community College in Business Management in 1994.

But from then on, working to support his family of four kids prevented him from getting any additional education. For 14 years, he worked his way up in the private security business, where he became a top manager with no benefits. “I got to the point where I was managing 3,000 security guards and had no benefits except for the paycheck I got every week,” he said. He had a falling-out with the owners when they failed to pay bonuses as promised to the guards he supervised, and the single father was out of a job.

“Actually it was the Work Experience Program, welfare to work, that helped me get in the door at the Department of Health after a six-month internship,” he said. “By 2006 I was a Public Health Advisor working for the Department of Health as a member of Local 768 with health-care benefits.” He turned out to have a gift for organizing, and worked his way up the union ranks from being a shop steward.

With the support of Local 768 president Fitz Reid, Mr. Scruggs applied to the Murphy Institute to attend its 18-credit college labor-studies accreditation program. But the father of four felt trepidation because it had been so long since he had cracked a book.

‘Family Atmosphere’
“At first when you go into the classrooms, you have this feeling that everybody is smarter than you. I was scared and nervous, but it turned out to be a family atmosphere,” he said. “There were 22 people in the class and I was in a class with other students who had their master’s degree. Some of them had already written books. It was not only diverse racially but experientially, with people with just their GED and others with their Ph.D.”

He continued, “The biggest surprise was that I was able to do it. I cried on stage when I graduated.”

No two paths to the Murphy Institute are the same. Consider Esther Murray, 47, a mother of two. Ms. Murray, a member of CWA 1180, is a Principal Administrative Assistant in the Department of Finance.

“I left my home in Tobago where there was no university. There was a university in Trinidad, but your parents had to have a lot of money to go but my mother, with my three brothers could not afford to send me,” Ms. Murray said in a phone interview.
She came to the U.S. when she was 21, where she did baby-sitting jobs, and got a temp assignment when she was 25 as a per-diem in the Finance Department in 1997, which led to a permanent job with the agency.

Focus: School, Job, Family
Over the next decade or so, she handled college course-work, family life and her city job and by 2008 had a four-year degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in trade and marketing. In 2015, she went on to earn her master’s in global affairs from NYU. “Throughout my education, I have been an evening student, maintaining my family and two children even as I was doing my 9-to-5 job,” Ms. Murray said. “But there is a struggle when you’re in a job where you feel stuck, but you have a bigger vision for yourself. Murphy made me aware of the broader labor movement.”

She learned of Murphy when she was working with 1180 to prepare to take a job-related test to move up the ladder at the Department of Finance. “The instructor said, ‘Esther, you are very engaged, you are always asking questions; you should go to the Murphy Institute,’ and I said, ‘What’s Murphy?’”

Once there, the social interaction made her nervous. “The only concern I had with Murphy, I told my professor, was that I felt like an outsider. The other classmates had been experienced in the labor movement. They had been out there in a picket line.” She expects to be getting her master’s in labor studies by 2019 and sees herself being an advocate “helping those who need help who have lost their job or have no security or no voice.”

Mr. Reid, the Local 768 president, said that all too often the U.S. education system “glorifies the successes of the individual over the collective” which “undermines the need for the collective, sustained struggles that energize and advance the labor movement.”

‘Create Chain Reaction’
“Labor education, if successful, has to create a chain reaction to sustain the struggle of resistance and advancement of the working class if we hope to achieve and maintain economic and social justice,” Mr. Reid said. “In this context, labor education, such as provided by the Murphy Institute, is not a leisure activity, an optional way to better oneself, or just a path to a higher income. It is a crucial necessity, if workers want to defend the gains of the labor movement and expand upon them.”

Ed Ott, a Distinguished Lecturer on Labor Studies at the Murphy Institute, has decades of experience in the union movement, serving most recently as executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council, which represents 1.3-million trade unionists from over 400 affiliated unions. He said what makes the Murphy Institute stand out is not just the diversity and accomplishments of the students, but the collective support they get from the entire school community.

“A student came to me several years ago and said something had happened in her personal life and she said she had to quit and I said, ‘You can’t’; and several of our staff members worked with her and she just graduated this year. Now she is going for her master’s,” Mr. Ott said in a phone interview.

“People are not only raising their children, but sometimes their grandchildren, and they come back to school to impress on their children the lifelong value of education.”

Age Mix’s Benefits
He continued, “Our inter-generational mix is very important for the older, working students so they can interact with the idealism of the younger students,” and for the younger students to take full measure of the character of their older classmates. “When you see that 55-year-old woman who is going to school at night but will be back at work at 7:30 a.m., you can’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Mr. Ott said that for many students, Murphy provides the missing link when it comes to labor education. “History books don’t often mention the role of labor,” he explained, and “people [don’t realize], particularly young people, that benefits like the 40-hour workweek, health benefits, pensions, sick days were not just granted, but were fought for.”