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U.S. labor secretary praises Philly apprentice program, announces $100M grant competition

But the local program, Urban Technology Project, has suffered due to budget cuts

Photo: Dale Mezzacappa

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Tyler Buck skillfully dismantled the screen of an iMac computer and showed U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez how to put it back together.

"You’re on the education superhighway," Perez said, telling Buck he has the skills for the future. "The sky’s the limit."

Said Buck, "I still have a lot to learn."

Buck, 19, a graduate of School of the Future, is a computer support specialist, the second level of apprentice in a longstanding Philadelphia program called the Urban Technology Project.

Perez came to Philadelphia on Thursday to announce a $100 million grant competition to create apprenticeship programs like Philadelphia’s across the country.

"Urban Technology Project is exactly the type of model for training the workforce of tomorrow," said Perez after speaking with Buck and other apprentices. Several young people displayed their skills and wowed the secretary, Mayor Nutter and Superintendent William Hite with demonstrations of cutting-edge technology, the guts and management of which they have mastered.

Perez called apprenticeship "the other college, except without the debt" and a ticket to the middle class for many urban students.

Finding good models like this and "scaling them up" is "vital for our collective economic future," Perez said.

UTP is a partnership between the School District and the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Philadelphia Inc., along with businesses that provide mentorships and, ultimately, jobs for the students who do well.

The director of UTP is Edison Freire, whom Perez said had an apt name, because he "shines a light" that allows for students to have better futures.

"This program is about youth leadership development and expanding career opportunities," Freire said. The program will soon be spreading to Chester-Upland. In partnership with Youth Empowerment Services (YES), it is moving to target out-of-school youth.

In addition, UPT is partnering with the Philadelphia Housing Authority to start an AmeriCorps pre-apprenticeship program for residents.

Students in the project first become "digital service fellows," working as AmeriCorps members in District headquarters or in schools on computer repair and maintenance for both hardware and software, mentored by professionals. They must be high school graduates and they get a yearly stipend, health benefits, and a SEPTA TransPass, among other benefits.

They learn how to write code as well as how to repair machines, and can qualify for multiple IT certifications.

The most skilled of them, like Buck, go on to become computer support specialists, working in the District or in partner companies and organizations.

Over the years, the apprentices have worked in more than 30 District schools, able to help teachers and administrators with computer issues and technical support, while also mentoring middle and high school students.

Since 2002, UTP has had 236 AmeriCorps members, said Elizabeth St. Clair, the program manager. The computer support specialist program is an IT Registered Apprenticeship program certified by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, the only program of its kind in the state.

But, ironically, though UTP is being touted for replication around the country, its future Philadelphia has been precarious. The villain, as with many things in the District, is budget cuts, along with leadership changes and other issues at the main partner, Communities in Schools.

"The budget cuts have been tough," said St. Clair. Few schools can afford to budget for the computer support specialists. And the infrastructure support from the District has been scant. Buck said that there used to be two computer support specialists in District headquarters to help with technical support in selected offices, but now it’s just him.

Among other things, St. Clair said, the program has had to cut support for classes at Community College of Philadelphia and vouchers for certification testing. "But we still make it work on a skeleton budget," she said.

On the plus side, there are new partners for job placements, including Springboard Media Inc., an authorized Apple dealer, and the City of Philadelphia. Buck is about to go to work for Springboard, which has the contract to service all Apple equipment at the University of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia intends to apply for a grant from the $100 million federal pot, but must compete like anyone else.

Mayor Nutter allowed himself a wry comment.

This kind of program "just shows us what we could do if we actually had sufficient money," he said. "That would be amazing."

Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the program targetting the out-of-school youth was in partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. That program is in partnership with Youth Empowerment Services (YES). The program with PHA is to start a pre-apprenticeship program for residents.

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