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Letitia James, the Brooklyn councilwoman who chairs the contracts committee that oversees SBS, offered a similar critique of the apprenticeship initiative: "I don't know what it's about. It's not real. It was a press release."
Robert Walsh, who has run SBS since Bloomberg took office, conceded during a three-hour Voice interview that he hasn't had a single meeting with the mayor to discuss the MWBE program since the new law went into effect in late 2005. He also acknowledged that, from the beginning of the administration, his conversations with Bloomberg about aiding small businesses "had not been focused on gender or race." Asked if they'd ever had a conversation in which Bloomberg gave him "a sense of how important an MWBE program was to him," Walsh replied: "I don't want to put words in anybody's mouth. I can't remember a conversation like that."
Bloomberg also never asked about the progress in finding minority construction apprentices. Not that anyone would've had answers—Walsh and his first deputy, Andrew Schwartz, couldn't answer any of the Voice's questions about minority apprentices, jobs, or work sites during the interview. "I didn't design the program . . . the first year, we didn't hit our goals . . . I don't know the breakdown," Walsh stammered, though he'd been told weeks before the interview that it was a focus of our story. "There is a lot we need to do on improving it." Pitched as a program for minorities when it was first unveiled during the campaign, the actual terms of the race-neutral and gender-conscious program require setting aside 10 percent of the apprentice slots for women, 5 percent for the "economically disadvantaged," other slots for veterans and public-housing residents, and none explicitly for minorities.
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Two weeks after the Voice interview, SBS finally came up with the embarrassing numbers: 72 of the "economically disadvantaged" apprentices who entered the program over the course of nearly three years and are still working today are black. (SBS said it had no data on the number of black apprentices retained for "a comparable time period" before the program was launched.) According to what the administration told a City Council committee, over the three-year period ending this month, up to 1,500 of the 3,900 apprentice slots in the city would have been set aside for underrepresented workers of various kinds, and SBS now admits that it was counting on many more economically disadvantaged blacks in that mix.
A knowledgeable SBS source told the Voice that the construction trades had, at one point, offered 100 open slots, and the city couldn't identify apprentices to fill them. David Jones, whose Community Service Society analysis of the city's exclusionary construction trades prompted Rangel "to pick up the phone and call the mayor directly about this," sits on the mayor's commission, but concedes that "we have rather modest movement." Contrasting Bloomberg's program with a more successful one in Washington, D.C., Jones said: "There is some question about the exercise of will here. I start frothing at the mouth—there's nothing like this anywhere else in the country. This is appalling."
It should have come as no surprise to Bloomberg that a country-club agency like SBS hasn't proven a nurturing home for these minority-assistance programs. SBS, which has a $145 million budget and 265-member staff, is largely devoted to what it calls "business-driven" workforce and financial-bridging initiatives for small and large firms. Walsh, who co-founded the city's first Business Improvement District years ago, has expanded BID services—which consume another $78 million—since taking over as head of SBS. He's also been preoccupied with jump-starting a host of new corporate-welfare programs touted by the Harvard Business School. Tied to the city's quasi-private Economic Development Corporation, Walsh's SBS has even found rationales for subsidizing companies like Tiffany's (to retrain a handful of employees), and has taken credit for placing 50,000 people in jobs with employers from IHOP to Whole Foods—jobs that those employers would've had no trouble filling on their own.
Walsh's other fixation—highlighted in a glossy, full-color tabloid called Spotlight—is the agency's softball team, for which he's the starting pitcher. A dozen current and former staffers, many of whom asked not to be identified, say that hiring and promotions can depend as much on batting average and after-hours schmoozing as on job performance. Walsh is even said to scan the Internet for local college stars to recruit to the agency, and has asked job applicants about their ball-playing skills. He has also reported on the team in his biweekly memos to Bloomberg, describing his decision to join a league that includes Standard & Poor's, the FBI, and other New York City agencies as "taking a page" from the section on "teamwork and getting employees out of the office" in Bloomberg by Bloomberg, the mayor's memoir.
With the agency now packed at the top with young Ivy Leaguers in the preliminary stages of their corporate careers, the executives setting the agenda can't see a future for themselves either in placing a city furniture order with a Latino vendor or installing a black apprentice at the Yankee Stadium construction site. But other city agencies have been known to quake in their cleats at the prospect of facing SBS on the diamond.