As big cities across the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, they are staring down some formidable challenges in their downtown commercial and office districts, as well as in their labor markets. Today, most U.S. downtowns have lower levels of activity compared to before the pandemic, especially in larger cities—and the federal relief that has compensated for lost sales taxes, transit fares, and other revenue is running out.
At the same time, what many initially called a “great resignation” in the labor market turned out to be more of a “great reshuffle”—a rapid shift of workers from one job, industry, or career into another as people re-evaluated their living and work arrangements during the pandemic. Both job openings and job quits reached record highs in 2021.
With last week being National Apprenticeship Week, this piece asks: What role can apprenticeships play in solving these challenges and bringing about more inclusive downtown economic development?
The pandemic’s workforce impacts are still challenging downtowns
Downtowns are confronting two challenges that will take collective effort to address.
First, even as the share of workers (and their share of days) working remotely has gradually declined since the onset of the pandemic, office vacancy rates in large downtowns have continued to rise, and at a faster rate than across the overall region. Even if this divergence eventually reaches a new equilibrium, it is opening up a gap in the relationship between downtowns and work.
The second challenge relates to dysfunctional labor markets. The pandemic’s initial economic shock was concentrated in Black and Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods, which saw severe job losses. These jobs have been slow to return and workers have been slow to return to them, as the protracted pandemic led to accelerated retirements and low immigration, while surging consumer demand, lack of child care, and other factors contributed to tight labor markets and high employee turnover. Employers are now finding that the old ways of hiring and retaining workers aren’t working anymore. Even in sectors of the economy that did not experience sharp job losses, these old ways of recruitment and selection are reproducing an opportunity gap, with degree-centric candidate screening leaving many workers and neighborhoods on the sidelines.
By embracing apprenticeships, downtowns are uniquely positioned to create a new competitive advantage and value proposition for themselves as talent engines for the future. And the wave of federal funding earmarked for workforce development, infrastructure, innovation, and climate adaptation will create additional opportunities to strategically engage …