We’ve helped hundreds of West Philadelphians connect to jobs. Now we’re taking the show on the road - Generocity Philly

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Jan. 10, 2020 7:39 am

We’ve helped hundreds of West Philadelphians connect to jobs. Now we’re taking the show on the road

With a 97% success rate, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative has proven itself exceptional at connecting people to jobs. Guest columnist Sarah Steltz outlines how WPSI achieves its success.

Sarah Steltz with a West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort in 2019.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post written by Sarah Steltz, VP of Workforce Solutions at University City District.

We are often asked what the secret is to our success at the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, our nationally recognized job training program.

In a way, the success has been a bit like knowing the answers to a test in advance. You see, we don’t run a job training program unless we have an employer partner with real jobs at the end for graduates.

Rather than giving underemployed West Philadelphia residents generic training in hopes that they will find a job, the Skills Initiative operates like a talent-management consultancy for the specialized employers in the area, including hospitals like CHOP, universities like Penn and Drexel, labs, and major agencies like SEPTA.

We place about 97 percent of our graduates in jobs, while the national average for a community-based workforce program is about 68 percent.

It works with each employer to identify which positions routinely experience retention and performance problems. By analyzing personnel data and interviewing frontline workers, our staff can understand root causes of hiring and turnover problems and better appreciate the technical and soft skills necessary to excel in a position. This serves to shape training programs and the candidate selection process.

As a result, we place about 97 percent of our graduates in jobs, while the national average for a community-based workforce program is about 68 percent. Since 2011 nearly 600 of our graduates have been placed in local jobs. Program participants who’d been unemployed for an average of 33 weeks have earned nearly $40 million in collective wages.

I have been at the Skills Initiative for 20 months, and despite these successes, our work has sometimes felt incomplete.

That feeling was especially pronounced early in my tenure, when I described the program at a city trade school and some city residents shared their frustration with our program because they didn’t live in the zip codes we serve. They needed a job-targeted training program that delivered results like ours, too. We wondered, could we broaden to other parts of Philadelphia? What would it take?

We may have some answers soon. Citizens Bank, JP Morgan Chase, the Connelly Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation have invested more than $2 million to test components of our program in North and South Philadelphia. We’ll build our own capacity to serve as consultants to our lead partners in these neighborhoods, Temple University and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., to adapt the model in ways that best serve these communities of employers and job seekers.

From our Partners

I believe in the power of place-based job growth. I believe our program, along with others like those originating from the Office of Workforce Development, can have an impact on the city’s poverty numbers. The Skills Initiative will continue to primarily serve West Philly and we’ll now be able to expand our offerings to those residents.

But we’ve always believed that zip code shouldn’t determine someone’s access to opportunity.

Bruce Katz, the director of the new Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, said in a recent case study that the Skills Initiative was a model for urban workforce development. The challenge ahead of us is to prove it.

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