This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Photo by Jane M. Von Bergen Photo by Jane M. Von Bergen
Part pep rally, part meet the players, Thursday’s breakfast launch of Philadelphia’s new workforce strategy brought together 300 workplace experts, counselors, leaders, executives from every workforce development agency in the city, and Mayor Kenney.
And true to form, speaker after speaker, more than a dozen in all, used all the workforce words — bridge curriculum, stackable credentials, career ladders, apprenticeships, interns, diversity, racial inequity, employment, employer-driven, path out of poverty, skills, soft skills, strategies, talent, pipelines.
But it took a single mother of three, a victim of domestic abuse who became pregnant at age 17, to use perhaps the most important word: hope.
“When I was trying to figure out my life, I needed hope,” said Joyce Bacon, a panelist and personal coach, responding to a question about what helped her the most as she struggled out of poverty into a career in program management at the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative. “That’s what [everyone] needs. They need hope.”
Kenney’s workforce initiative, titled “Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine: A Citywide Workforce Strategy,” aims to lift people such as Bacon, 40, and speaker Aaron Kirkland, 29, a former drug dealer who now is a city civil service worker in green stormwater management for the Water Department, out of poverty through sustainable careers.
But that is not its only goal. It also intends to lift the city’s overall educational and economic attainment, positioning it to be more competitive in a global market.
“It’s unacceptable for any Philadelphian to be working a full-time job and still living in poverty,” Kenney said. Also unacceptable? The city’s 25.7 percent poverty rate, with 12.3 percent living in deep poverty, which is defined as 50 percent of the federal poverty rate.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s disgraceful. We can do better,” Kenney said.
Kenney told the group at Community College of Philadelphia that the program “is not a plan for city government,” but instead a partnership involving employers, workforce experts, and educators. “When we do this right, the result will be outstanding.”
The plan aims to align the efforts of educators and workforce training experts more closely with business needs, with the first focus on reading, writing, numeracy, and digital literacy so that more Philadelphia residents can earn higher, family-sustaining wages.
To start, Philadelphia students need to be better prepared for college and careers, and workforce strategies need to be tailored to assist each challenged group, such as young people disconnected from work and school, the formerly incarcerated, and immigrants.
The plan also asks partners to concentrate their efforts in seven key industry sectors, all projected to either grow or to scale back slowly in the next decade: health care; retail and hospitality; business and financial services; manufacturing and logistics; construction and infrastructure; technology; and early childhood education.
Within these sectors, the idea is to build middle-skill jobs that require an associate’s degree or more intense post-high school training, through an apprenticeship or some other long-term on-the -job learning.
City Commerce Director Harold T. Epps told the group he’d like to see the city’s job count grow from 714,891 payroll positions to 800,000 by 2026.
That will take patience and committed effort, the speakers said.
“For many students, it’s not going to be a quick fix, and we have to recognize that,” said Cheryl Feldman, executive director of District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund. “The first training is only the first step. We need to have the commitment to support people beyond that.”
The idea, she and others said, is not to push someone into any low-skill job, but to use the first job as a way to build toward the second and third jobs on a career ladder, from, for example, nurse’s aide to registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree.
“The first job can be a learning opportunity, but it can’t be the only one,” said H. Patrick Clancy, president and chief executive of Philadelphia Works Inc., the quasi-public agency that serves as a funnel for state and federal workforce dollars coming into Philadelphia.
Key to success is a clear line of communication with employers, said Patrick Callihan, executive director of Tech Impact, which has moved people from jobs earning $24,000 a year to tech jobs earning $65,000 a year in a few months.
“It has to start with the employers,” Callihan said. “We get the employers to the table and we’re going to put the training programs at the table and we’re going to connect them.”
Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite said the District needs to be sure children learn to read as quickly as possible. “Once we do that, how do we then use this reading ability [for students] to learn the skills, the strategies, the traits and the behaviors” that translate into careers? he asked.
Hite said that it’s well-known among educators that the best way to prepare students for college is to have them do college-level work before they get to campus. It’s the same for the work world.
“To be successful at work, they have to those experiences prior to moving into the workforce.”
It’s important, he said, to increase graduation rates, but it’s also important for the School District to be “part and parcel of the workforce strategy for the city of Philadelphia,” and that involves “exposure to experiences” and making sure that lessons in math, reading and science are put into the context of what is needed in the work world.
The potential is there, said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president and chief executive of Philadelphia Youth Network. “Young people can do amazing things,” she said, but right now there aren’t enough resources to teach them what they need at the required scale.
And, she said, it’s important to be “candid and honest” about issues of equity, code-switching, and game-playing in the world of work.
Also speaking at the event were Michael DiBerardinis, managing director of the City of Philadelphia; Uva Coles, vice president of institutional advancement at Peirce College; and John Colborn, the chief operating officer at JEVS Human Services.
The stakes are high, said Daniel Fitzpatrick, president of Citizens Bank in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. “We’re in a global battle for talent,” he said, and need to become more inclusive to win it.
“It’s an untapped resource from a global perspective and we’re weakening ourselves” if more people are not reached, Fitzpatrick said.
Those people are people like Aaron Kirkland, the first speaker at Thursday’s event. Kirkland said the combination of skill-building, technical knowledge, and mentoring gave him hope to change his life.
“Had I not had the opportunity to learn these things and had I not had people working with me to help me out, I don’t know where I’d be today,” Kirkland said.
And people like Bacon.
At first, she said, she just wanted a job, any job. “You’re in survival mode,” she said. But workforce training programs helped her see her talents and abilities and showed her a path to professionalism.
“I was missing the confidence to walk through the door and say, `Yes, I want the job, but you also need me,’” she said.
Bacon said that many people in Philadelphia are like her — underdogs who just want the know-how, the confidence, and the hope.
For her, and for them, she said, “you just have to crack open the door of opportunity a little bit.”