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Ready? Set? Work

Efforts to prepare young people for available jobs are coming from many directions -- businesses, nonoprofits, government and the School District.

Chalkbeat Philadelphia is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.

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

”Sometimes the machine that fixes machines needs fixing itself, and that was the case at the Swenson Arts & Technology High School’s automotive shop one Monday in May, where the front-end alignment rack wasn’t behaving properly.

Everyone had a couple of tries at it, but it took sophomore Alexander Arroyo, 16, to get the thing humming again.


“What did you do?” auto technology teacher Bob Nelson asked. Arroyo flashed a grin. “Magic touch,” he said, before he disappeared back into the garage, ready to solve whatever problem was plaguing the minivan in the bay.

Arroyo is already well on the way to his future. In June, he starts an internship/summer job with the city’s fleet management crew, where he’ll work on everything from trash trucks to police cars, for $10.88 an hour. If he does well, he’ll have the same job next summer, with a good shot at a post-high school position as a city employee, beginning an apprenticeship through AFSCME District Council 33, the municipal blue-collar union.

Teachers in automotive, welding, plumbing, and solar energy shops in schools across the city say that every one of their seniors who wants a job – right out of high school – can have one in that field. Given what’s happening the broader economy, that’s not a surprise.

“People are worried about the future of the workforce,” said H. Patrick Clancy, president and chief executive officer of Philadelphia Works, the quasi-public agency that distributes dollars from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

People are also worried about the future of today’s youth. And increasingly, those worried about the workforce and those worried about the youth are talking to each other.

The city’s workforce development report released in January, “Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine,” promises more alignment of public and private investment – a tall order in a city not known for smooth relationships between the two sectors and historically fragmented within its government agencies.

Yuxuan Zhao, of Chinatown, an 11th grader, studies mechatronics at Ben Franklin. “I love it,” he said. Principal Christine Borelli said the program is the most difficult in the advanced manufacturing cluster. Photo by Harvey Finkle

“I think when you are solving complex social problems like workforce development, it’s not an easy fix,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network. “What is admirable and exciting about this set of efforts is that it’s multi-dimensional. There’s no one group trying singlehandedly to solve it.”

Philadelphia’s overall high school graduation rate has been slowly rising, and it now stands at 67 percent. But concerns remain that many of the graduates are ill-prepared for college or work. The city has a huge contingent of so-called “opportunity youth” between the ages of 16 and 24, disconnected from school, and unemployed.

The blueprint sets a goal of placing 4,000 of these youth in “quality career pathways” by 2020, Fulmore-Townsend said.

“We’re working in challenging circumstances,” she said. “But this is a good time to invest in the work.”

The federal government is providing incentives for collaboration in the newest iteration of its Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education is prioritizing “career readiness” in its new school evaluation matrix.

Beyond the governmental nudges, larger forces are at work. Economic and demographic trends add new urgency to the common worries about the future of the workforce and youth, particularly in Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s largest cities.

Politicians are listening and funneling more money into workforce development programs as well as career and technical education, with $18.5 million in youth workforce money coming in to Philadelphia, mostly from the state. There is also increased federal Perkins Act money so schools can outfit classrooms with machines like the one Arroyo was able to fix. It cost $75,000 several years ago.

Businesses, government, and the Philadelphia School District are building stronger pipeline partnerships. One example is the January report, co-authored by the city and the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

Some of the stigma attached to career and technical education – once known as “vocational” classes and often a dumping ground for students who teachers thought couldn’t handle more academic work – seems to be eroding, an industry expert says. If anything, the issue in Philadelphia is capacity. Schools are short on qualified instructors who have the industry know-how and are willing to take a pay cut and spend their own money to attend college for the necessary certifications.

Making the direct connection for students between what they do in school and their possible future is key.

“It’s very important,” said Arroyo, the Swenson student. “This school is just like other schools, except they have jobs that are out there and you are learning it while you go to school. When you go out and do the job, you’ll already know what to do. Hopefully, we can show off our skills that we learned here.”

The workforce report is optimistic. Its introductory letter, signed by Mayor Kenney and Chamber of Commerce president Rob Wonderling, states: “Working together, we will activate the talent that is abundant in our city — in our young people, communities of color, low-wealth neighborhoods, and formerly incarcerated individuals. We will harness this talent through viable pathways to stable employment in family-sustaining jobs.”

Of the $18.5 million that Philadelphia Works spends on youth programming, $3.5 million goes to fund summer job programs. That money is part of the $11 million that Philadelphia Youth Network is spending on its annual WorkReady initiative, which aims to provide summer jobs for at least 9,300 young people.

The problem

During the recession, employers shed workers and were slow to rehire during the recovery. When the economy finally rebounded, employers simply didn’t have enough people to fill the openings, in part because their laid-off pre-recession employees had moved on to new careers, retired, or left the workforce.

Even before the recession, employers had worried about the pending flood of baby boomer retirements, figuring they’d start leaving at age 55. The recession, however, granted employers a reprieve. Because boomers’ retirement savings had tanked in the downturn, those who had held onto their jobs during the layoffs were not eager to give them up.

Now, though, business is picking up, and with it, so is the demand for workers. Meanwhile, retirement savings have rebounded, and the baby boomers are closer to normal retirement age. The oldest of the generation are in their early 70s.

“Businesses know they are facing the gray tsunami,” Clancy said.

For them, it’s a blessing and a curse. The curse is a worker shortage. The blessing is the opportunity, through internships, apprenticeships, and other pipeline programs, to “mold a workforce the way they want to mold them and hopefully, get them in at wages that aren’t as high,” Clancy said.

At the same time, there is that persistently large group of “disconnected” youth who need the connection.

Clancy said the disconnected youth in particular tend to appreciate apprenticeship programs. “They are so grateful that to be part of something that is structured and secure,” he said, adding that the sense of security tends to encourage young workers to stay with employers longer.

Moving the conversation along

And beyond CTE, it is a question of whether graduates have the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed on the job. The School District has returned to its strategy of putting 9th graders in their own academies; 9th grade is where students are most likely to fall behind and ultimately disengage from school.

But keeping students on track needs to start long before that point. Mayor Kenney’s preschool initiative is designed to help address that issue.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is steering schools toward making students think about career options early, which could help with their school engagement.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the latest incarnation of the federal law that funnels resources to schools with low-income students, requires states to include measures beyond test scores in how they evaluate schools. Pennsylvania added a measure of college and career readiness that requires schools to document activities in this area with students as early as kindergarten.

In the earliest grades, for instance, the evidence could include career days, in which parents discuss their work, and asking children to draw pictures of their favorite profession. Later, if a student is interested in fish, there could be a day in which they learn about careers that involve fish – oceanography, for instance.

“It’s a way to incentivize schools to do career exploration,” said Beth Olanoff, special assistant to Pennsylvania’s education secretary. “By 8th grade, we want kids to start to have an idea where they want to end up. If they don’t have an idea by then, how can they take advantage of opportunities in high school?”

The School District is on a constant quest to match its available CTE programs with workforce needs. It must find the teachers, buy the equipment (hoping it doesn’t go obsolete too quickly), and convince the students that the specific program is worthwhile.

The city’s workforce report cites health care as the area most in demand, followed by retail and hospitality, business and financial services, manufacturing and logistics, construction and infrastructure, technology services, and early childhood education.

In Philadelphia, nearly 6,100 students are enrolled in CTE programs this year. The most popular programs are culinary arts (646 students) and health related technologies (641). In the health sector, there are also programs in dental and clinical assisting, emergency medical technician, health information records technology, and biotechnology, bringing health sector enrollment to about 1,000.

Popular programs include sports marketing and management (455) and digital media production (428). By contrast, only 30 are enrolled in plumbing, 17 in precision machine tool technology and 44 in computer-aided drafting and design – all high-demand fields.

At Roxborough High School, 75 percent of the students enrolled in a science, technology, arts, engineering and mathematics program managed by the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund have summer internships in health-care institutions, particularly nursing homes, as part of WorkReady’s summer jobs program. District 1199C is a health-care workers’ union, but the students at Roxborough aren’t specifically being steered into that field, despite the prevalence of health-care internships, said Makeeda Holley, director of workforce development at the District 1199C fund.

“We want students to still be able to explore,” she said. However, the first cohort of the group, now in college, has said they’ll go into health-related fields, from health records technology to patient care.

The Department of Education’s Olanoff noted that in Pennsylvania, only 12 percent of students take advantage of CTE courses.

Besides their academic credentials, CTE students must pass tests devised by the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute that measure their skills in their career field. In the 2016-17 school year, 1,113 seniors at 29 schools took their NOCTI tests. The results? Just over a third, 34.6 percent, were rated as advanced and another third were deemed competent. The percentage of advanced students has fallen over the last five years.

Students also earn industry certifications, set up by industry groups in the trades they are studying. For example, automotive students must pass the S/P2 certification, which measures knowledge in safety and pollution control. At Swenson, five 2017 graduates were certified to conduct annual automobile inspections.

In the 2016-17 school year, 2,117 students at 29 schools earned 3,852 industry certifications, up from 1,211 students at 18 schools earning 1,760 certifications in 2012-13. The Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine report also emphasizes that workforce readiness, regardless of the specific trade, involves more than technical proficiency. PYN’s Career Development Plan describes “skills and mindsets,” including resilience, mindfulness, curiosity, capacity for self-reflection, and being a good team player.

Although CTE courses can lead directly to jobs, they can also be an alternate route to college. Sam Serrano, 18, a senior at Edison High School enrolled in its automotive program, will head to Penn State’s main campus to study engineering and believes he’ll get there better prepared than some arriving with a roster of Advanced Placement credits.

“I actually know how to turn a wrench,” he said. “Books aren’t going to help you there.”

The teacher dilemma

Finding good teachers in general is a problem for Philadelphia, but finding and keeping qualified CTE teachers presents special challenges.

“It’s time-consuming and expensive to become a CTE instructor,” said Diane Castelbuono, the District’s acting chief of academic support. Some experienced welders, mechanics, plumbers and machinists never went to college, and so must go back to school, at their own expense, for as many as 78 credits. Even those who have a bachelor’s degree must accrue 27 credits.

Swenson’s Nelson worked for 37 years as a master automotive technician before joining the district in 2007.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said, sitting in a classroom next to the school’s automotive garage. “One of the biggest problems is the salary. You have to take a cut in salary to come in and then you have to pay for your own education.”

Nelson had never been to college, so in his mid-50s, he enrolled at Temple University to obtain the necessary certifications. “I was concerned about how difficult it would be,” he said. “But I enjoyed it.”

There are payoffs. All the teachers interviewed said they enjoyed the relationship with their students, which they describe as collegial. Part of the satisfaction comes from getting to know the students well – they will typically have them in shop classes for several years.

Sometimes they even hire them. Steven Shagrin, the plumbing instructor at Thomas Alva Edison High School/ John C. Fareira Skills Center, still maintains his plumbing business. One of his helpers is an Edison graduate.

That assumes, of course, that students can be enticed into the programs. Ben Franklin High School, which is building its advanced manufacturing program, has capacity for 372 and so far, has 175 enrolled.

“We’re building,” said principal Christine Borelli. The school shares its manufacturing classrooms with Community College of Philadelphia.

Borelli said her CTE teachers had been taking the lead in going to feeder schools to recruit 8th graders. “We want the students who are coming to Ben Franklin to be coming for advanced manufacturing.”

Philadelphia is just beginning to be involved in the “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing” video contest that has become popular in other parts of the state. Middle schoolers tour local factories, interview workers and executives, and then make a video about their factory with students voting online for the best videos in several categories. The culminating event is an Oscar-like ceremony. The idea is to encourage middle schoolers to enroll in career and technical high schools and enrollments have increased in participating districts.

It’s a clear example of conversation between the education system and the business world.

What companies are doing

“Some employers are beginning to think strategically,” Philadelphia Works chief executive Clancy said, citing large organizations such as SEPTA, PECO and Comcast. “They know their bench is not strong. The small to medium employers are going to need more help. They don’t have the time to do the outreach.”

The strategy? Snap the employees up early. Companies are finally realizing “no one is coming to solve this problem for them, so they have to get directly involved to build their own talent base,” said Anthony Girifalco, executive vice president of Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center. “If they don’t get involved, they aren’t going to be able to sustain their businesses.”

That’s been the strategy for PTR Baler & Compactor Co., a 130-employee manufacturer of waste and recycling equipment.

For years, the company has been involved as a counselor and advisor to four city schools, Mastbaum, Ben Franklin, Randolph and Edison High Schools, pointing out industry trends and advising on equipment purchases. About five years ago, it decided to increase its involvement at Edison, spending $50,000 to buy and install some of the exact welding equipment it uses at its plant in Northeast Philadelphia. And that’s on top of the $5,000 in materials — metal and wiring — it provides to Edison yearly.

Christine Vega, 18, a senior at Edison High School in the plumbing program, is hoping to be accepted into the School District’s apprenticeship program. She’s also been offered a job with a plumbing contractor doing residential work. With her is plumbing instructor Steven Shagrin, who still runs a plumbing business. Photo by Harvey Finkle

“In welding, you use a lot of wire and metal,” said Brent Ford, PTR human resources manager. “It’s not like a school book.”

The investment paid off immediately. Edison co-op students working at PTR for $10.00 an hour in their junior and senior years outperformed their peers from other schools, and in some cases, PTR Baler’s long term staff.

This past year, PTR took on 11 coop students. Next year, PTR will add Luis Ortiz, 17, a junior who moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico after the hurricanes destroyed his school. When he joins, the money he’ll earns at PTR will make a major contribution to his household. “It’s a big opportunity,” he said.

On graduation, PTR will hire four or five of them, who come in working as if they’ve already had 12 months of training. Ford said his company would have to pay $14,000 over 12 to 18 months to train a novice welder off the street. With these programs, the School District is doing the bulk of the training. And, he said, the district’s involvement is increasing.

Ford said the average age of welders in Philadelphia is 55, but at his company, the average is in the mid-30s, early 40s — the result of PTR’s human resource initiatives with the schools. “We wouldn’t be as far as we are in terms of growth, if we wouldn’t have taken these steps,” he said.

“It’s more than what we get out of it as a company,” Ford said. “The other side is that we’re touching hundreds of students to help them have a better path for the future.”

This article is part of the summer edition of the Notebook, which is made possible through a partnership with Project U-turn, an alliance to increase the graduation rate and boost future opportunities for young people in Philadelphia. See more articles and information here.

The Notebook is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Read more at https://brokeinphilly.org and follow us on twitter @BrokeInPhilly