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In West Philly, Human Capital is the Next Growth Industry

Training at West Philadelphia Skills Initiative
Training at West Philadelphia Skills Initiative

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The Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) has partnered with sister publication Flying Kite to explore how good jobs are created and filled in Greater Philadelphia.

When there are jobs that need filling and people who need work, it should be a simple equation. But that isn't always the case. Often there is a disconnect, a sort of formal miscommunication that prevents employees and employers from coming together (and staying together). Enter the master translator: The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI).

The WPSI is a program run by the University City District, a collaboration of every major institution and employer in the neighborhood. In 2009, when Executive Director Matt Bergheiser came aboard, he brought with him a desire to expand the idea of economic opportunity to include human capital. After raising seed money, including a grant from the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN), the organization launched its first training program in 2011. 

WPSI consists of three components: the Youth Employment Network, which connects high school kids to summer jobs; Neighborhood Job Pipelines, training programs leading to full-time career-ladder jobs, such as medical assistant and laboratory animal technician, at University City institutions; and the Center for Economic Advancement (CEA), a lean-and-mean training model that places workers in entry-level jobs.

The CEA grew out of feedback from the pipelines. Those earn-and-learn six month programs cost about a quarter of a million dollars each to run; they place participants in jobs that pay between $12 and $17 per hour. Could they reach more people with a pared down model?

"The [pipelines] are able to impact, in a real way, what the institutions are doing in terms of hiring, but are very limited in terms of the number of people who get jobs at the end," explains WPSI Director Sheila Ireland. "So, the CEA is sort of our bigger-faster-cheaper model. It targets entry-level positions. It's only four weeks; 120 hours of training. And works with partners that don't necessarily have to be institutions."

The CEA currently has a cohort working towards positions at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) (jobs range from $9 to $14 per hour). That direct collaboration with job providers is one of the things that makes WPSI's training programs so effective.

"It's employer-driven," says Ireland. "So, in a real way, the employer is the client, as opposed the participant. It's a tiny shift in philosophy that makes all the difference. The job is yours to lose in these programs. In order for an employer to be a partner, they have to reserve X number of vacancies for X number of seats that I have in my program. So, if there are 15 seats in a CHOP cohort, there have to be 15 vacancies at CHOP."

WPSI also smooths the way by providing all pre-employment screening: background checks, drug tests, assessing basic reading and math. It's an efficiency tool -- they don't want to waste anyone's time (or money).

The other big innovation at WPSI, and at CEA in particular, is that there is no technical training. Instead, it's all about "soft skills."

"That's borne out of an analysis we've done that really looks at communities and what the skills gaps are," explains Ireland. "For entry-level positions, we have no problem whatsoever recruiting people who have the technical skills in place."

"My personal philosophy is that there is a lot of emphasis out there on technical skills training -- [people assume] that's why people can't get jobs," she continues. "And, yes, there's been a shift in the economy, but it's been towards the service economy. Oftentimes the reason people cannot connect to work is their interpersonal skills, their soft skills, their emotional intelligence. Those are the things that get in their way." 

The CEA training sessions zero in on those skills, helping participants become fluent in workplace dynamics and self-presentation. One example is a course called "Locus of Control." Instructors give an exam that determines if attendees' locus of control is external or internal. (Studies have proven that people who have an internal locus of control do better in school, earn more money and have better health.) Then they show participants what they can do to shift it. 

"I teach a course called 'Class Consciousness,'" says Ireland. "We talk about the difference between poverty and middle class and wealth. If you've lived in poverty, especially for two generations or more, those mores can be very opaque to you -- and it might be the reason why you can't connect effectively."

One of the participants in the first cohort at CHOP recently stopped by the office. She (along with three other CEA graduates) had been offered a promotion to a job called 'inpatient clerk.' In just four months, she had moved from patient sitter at $12.39 per hour to a middle-skills job paying $19.40 per hour.

"She said, 'I just kept thinking about what you said in the program about how to manage your personal life, in terms of showing up for the employer, how to give employers what it is that they need. To delay gratification. To work for a goal,'" recalls Ireland. "And now, four months later, a 60 percent raise is a result of her doing that."

Thanks to this sort of success, WPSI programs are incredibly popular. They recently installed a new phone system, and were able to track over 1300 calls received about the CHOP program. There were more than 300 applications for 15 seats. 

"In some ways, its very depressing to see the stampede of people for a $12 per hour job," says Ireland. "We're happy to help. We really think we're having an impact in what we're doing, but it's like finger in the dyke."

"We have more work than we can do," she adds. "It's always the tension of quality versus quantity. Our approach is very labor-intensive up front. When I first went to Drexel about a pipeline, it took me six months of meetings to put together a program that I thought would be effective for them. And then it's very hands on. When you're focusing on soft skills, it's not the sort of thing you can scale. I might as well go to a stadium and give a talk for 5,000 -- it doesn't work. That's our struggle."

Ireland throws out one possible solution: roving consulting teams that could travel around running programs, adapting to neighborhoods --even those without the wealth of employers present in University City.

"The nice thing about UCD is that the institutions were already at the table," explains Ireland. "You can build a table. If I was in Southwest Philly, I would look at industry in the area and say, what is the primary need of employers here and who are they? If I think about what I would do outside of institutions, I would look at things like longterm care. There are 1800 longterm care beds in West Philadelphia. So you're looking at hundreds of jobs that have high turnover and a real need for employees who stick-and-stay. And employees who stick-and-stay in that industry make the higher level salaries, and they can support their families." 

In order to bridge the gap to workers, employers also need to make their HR processes more sophisticated and progressive. One clear area of friction is "on-boarding" -- how a new employee enters an institution. That process has a tremendous impact on retention. 

WPSI is currently working on a third program with Drexel; it launches in January. In their most recent pipeline with the university, WPSI was able to go in and train the supervisors who were going manage the program graduates. This is a way to come at a problem from both ends -- make supervisors understand the value of retention while also training employees to walk into an organization ready to add value. 

Despite all their success, WPSI still faces a host of challenges. 

"I'm always disappointed by the lack of collaboration," says Ireland, noting her fruitful partnership with Career Wardrobe as a counterexample. "There's a scarcity mentality -- there are X number of philanthropic dollars. So, [the nonprofit community] doesn't really work together effectively. And I think the need is so big and so broad. I'm one boat in the river."

"Build a coalition," she adds. "You can go to employers and say, look, I have this program and I can guarantee you that 92 percent of our folks are going to stick-and-stay based on our track record. Are you interested in having employees that are committed to your organization? Most people say yes."

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
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