Two years ago, after being laid off from his job as a court reporter, 24-year-old Michael Benson was brooding in his Overbrook kitchen when his mother called — she had heard about a new program connecting neighborhood residents to local jobs — the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative.
Benson applied and was accepted into the program, run by the University City District, and roughly nine months later, he landed a job as an applications analyst for the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
Prior to the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, he knew little about his current career path. “It didn’t exist to me,” Benson said. “They gave me something that I didn’t know was there. If the minimum was working here for the rest of my life, I could still raise a family.”
Because the program is focused on filling in-demand jobs, Benson was pegged for his role early on, coached on career and computer skills, and completed on-the-job training at Penn. He relishes his position because it requires him to “think backwards” and troubleshoot often.
“I look at all these past jobs that I had, like court reporting,” Benson said, ruminating on his lackluster work history. “I could do that with my eyes closed. But with this job, it’s challenging. Every day is new. It’s not an easy job by far, and you really have to pay attention to detail.”
Connecting Neighbors with Employers
Piloted in 2011, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative was conceived as a “simple solution to a complex economic problem,” said Sarah Davis, the director of development at the University City District (UCD).
According to a report issued by UCD, there are 72,000 jobs in University City alone — 10 percent of the total employment base in Philadelphia — but some West Philadelphia neighborhoods are still dogged by high rates of unemployment. Fifteen percent of the total population is unemployed, versus 11 percent citywide.
Despite the numbers, “There’s a really vibrant economic story happening in the neighborhood,” said Davis, whose organization reached out to anchor institutions — like Penn, Drexel, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — to see how it could aid their growth while reducing local joblessness.
“We said to them, tell us about the jobs that you’re having trouble filling, let’s partner together to see if we can establish a training program,” Davis recalled, “It was really sort of a creative approach, a response to that gap.”
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UCD does the recruiting and training for the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, and its housed mostly at the Community College of Philadelphia’s West Philly outpost. Since its inception, the Skills Initiative has graduated 163 participants, and nearly 80 percent were placed in jobs.
“The program is completely tailored to [employers’] hiring needs,” Davis said. Most participants work in the allied health field, as in medical professions outside of doctors and nurses, but UCD is looking at other employment opportunities that conserve the neighborhood, such as landscaping, which also helps attract male participants.
New Funding from PEW
To expand the program, UCD was recently awarded a three-year, $180,000 grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which gifted $7.34 million to 45 organizations serving vulnerable adults in the region.
“The new grant will be instrumental in bringing the Skills Initiative to a much more robust stage of its evolution,” Davis said. Pew also provided the initial leadership gift to get the program off the ground.
Organizations that received the competitive grants “have a drive toward excellence and are using best practices,” said Frazierita Klasen, a senior director at Pew. “They are managing their operations, finances and human resources really well,” she added.
Photo via University City District website
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