This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Jercara Johnson, 13, a seventh grader at Southwark Elementary School, cooks salmon for her family, she likes to glaze it with honey.
So, at a Career Day on April 21 organized by the Philadelphia Commerce Department and the Philadelphia School District at Community College of Philadelphia, Jercara, the future chef, made a beeline for the Vetri Community Partnership table.
The nonprofit, founded by chef Marc Vetri and restaurateur Jeff Benjamin, helps connect young people to nutritious food through cooking.
“I want to see what kinds of things there are to do,” Jercara said.
That was Matthew Phun’s motivation as well. He’s 12 and also a seventh grader at Southwark Elementary.
“I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, so they told us we should come here,” Matthew said. He was excited because he had just shaken Mayor Kenney’s hand.
Seventh graders at a career fair?
“I would start them thinking as early as possible,” School Superintendent William Hite said. “The pivotal time is whenever they start thinking about those careers. We want them to have the opportunity to find out what it takes to do that career.”
Speaking to the 50 students who attended, some with their adults in tow, Hite urged them to stop by the tables set up by employers, such as SEPTA, Citizens Bank, Saxbys, Philly Bread, and Weckerly’s Ice Cream, as well as academic institutions, including Community College of Philadelphia, the Wistar Institute and Hussian College.
“Make sure you speak to these individuals,” he said. “Don’t be shy. I know you aren’t. Talk to these people, connect with them, share emails. Introduce yourself. Shake hands. Ask them questions and learn” about the opportunities they offer.
Community College president Donald “Guy” Generals welcomed the students, assuring them that they are in good company with the workforce partners in the room.
“You are bright and energetic,” Generals said, citing as proof that “you’re here at 10:30 and you could have been doing other things.”
Career Day was designed to reach the young people at three pivotal periods: students finishing seventh grade, who will be applying to high schools in the fall; high school juniors, who will be applying to colleges; and high school seniors entering the workforce who will be looking for jobs.
“At 13 and 14 years old, they are beginning to think what they are interested in,” said Heloise Jettison, senior director of talent development for the city’s Department of Commerce.
“We want them to learn about career and technical education. A four- year college is not for everybody. So we have to tell them what are other options that [are] obtainable, that won’t break the bank, and will get them on career pathways early,” she said.
The point is for students to discover early enough what they like and don’t like before they get too locked into a future that they don’t want.
“When you graduate from college, you can’t say, ‘I want to try something else,’ because now you have to pay off student loans and you probably have an apartment,” said Sylvester Mobley, chief executive of Coded by Kids, who led one of three workshops scheduled throughout the day.
“But if you have been exposed to all these different things,” he said, “you have a much better idea of what you want to do.”
The other workshops were based on construction and design by Tiny WPA, a nonprofit in West Philadelphia, and on cooking by Rebel Ventures.
Professionals who look familiar
“The sobering reality is that many students don’t get to experience life outside of their neighborhoods,” said Jonathan E. Todd, director of talent development at the city’s Department of Commerce.
“They are exposed to high levels of unemployment and poverty. There’s a lack of access, a lack of opportunities. We want to empower them to be exposed to these professionals, and to be exposed to professionals who look like them.”
Everyone came to the event with an agenda, including the young people who, within a matter of minutes, man- aged to decimate two trays of cookies intended to feed 150.
Pete Merzbacher, founding baker at Philly Bread, was hoping to find some apprentices who were serious about learning to bake, so they could join his staff of 13 at his facility in Olney.
“It’s impossible to find good bakers,” he said. “At first I thought it was just me, that maybe my business wasn’t good enough. But when I talk to the other bakers, they have the same problem.”
Jacqueline Mack brought her granddaughter Saniah Aaron, a ninth grader at Cristo Rey High School, an independent Catholic school in South-west Philadelphia.
“This was a divine opportunity,” Mack said, and Saniah, who wants to be a cardiologist, agreed.
“I think you can never be too young to think about what you want to be,” Saniah said. “You should take the opportunity and the initiative. It makes me feel really motivated to not give up, to have a positive outlook, to always talk to people, and to take advantage of whatever opportunities come my way.”
For example, she said, she talked to recruiters from CCP who told her how she could save money by taking introductory courses at the community college, then transferring to another college.
Over 30 career programs
Steven T. Herring, transportation specialist for the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Career and Technical Education, wanted to increase parents’ awareness about CTE programs.
Although he specializes in the District’s automotive education programs, he was there to represent the entire range of career and technical offerings, including dental assisting, welding, carpentry, and barbering.
“It’s parental awareness,” he said. “There is a choice, and it’s not just charters. We have over 30 different career and technical programs.”
The Automotive Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, he said, regularly scoops up the high school automotive graduates or grabs them later after they’ve had more training at places like Community College of Philadelphia’s automotive program.
The City of Philadelphia runs a pre-apprenticeship program, starting young mechanics working in fleet management while in high school. When they graduate, many begin in the city’s automotive apprenticeship program
through AFSCME District Council 33, the union that represents blue-collar
“Go to the dental-assisting schools,” Herring said. “You’ll think you are in a dentist’s office.”
A matter of survival
Wearing his SEPTA polo shirt, Daniel Amspacher, director of human resource strategy, said, “we’re talking to the young ladies,” trying to persuade them to join SEPTA to be welders and mechanics — jobs now typically held by men. “We’re trying to make the term nontraditional employee obsolete.”
Tyjanay Garrick, a seventh grader at Edward Gideon Elementary School near 29th Street and Glenwood Avenue in North Philadelphia, listened politely, but she wasn’t sold. She would rather be an obstetrician.
“I love babies,” she said.
After Tyjanay moved on to the next table, Amspacher said: “Sixth to eighth grade is the key age when they start forming opinions about what they want to do as adults, so we’re trying to do as much outreach as possible.“Look, we have one of the highest concentrations of poverty of any city. Reaching out is not only a matter of good business. It’s a matter of survival.”
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