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To create good jobs for Philadelphians, now is the time to do everything

August 6, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest column was written by Matt Bergheiser, the president of University City District.
Philadelphians occupy a unique vantage point at a time of national reckoning.  In an uncommonly endearing city, full of flaws and complications, we walk the same streets as did our nation’s flawed and complicated founders, who achieved uncommon greatness here.

History is alive in our city, baring the links between contemporary Philadelphia and colonial America, between the founding debates that shaped a young country and the modern challenges of a beleaguered metropolis. Perhaps that’s why a recent interview with political scholar Danielle Allen about the Declaration of Independence stuck with me: “Human advancement requires coordination around a shared plan.  The Founders needed a moment of punctuation, and The Declaration is best read as a way to memorialize for everyone what their plan was, what they wanted to do together.”

The Declaration was a shared plan for the nation crafted by Philadelphians, transient and settled ones, alike. Now, during crisis, what plan might Philadelphians pen for our own city? What common civic project can bring us together to shape a better Philadelphia?  What is our shared purpose?

I offer one civic project for consideration: Let’s unite to grow good and dignified jobs at a scale we could not have imagined even six months ago.

To move from the usual talk about good jobs to action, we can’t simply pull a single policy lever or offer bromides about “inclusive prosperity.”  Now is the time to do everything.

A Good Jobs Project for Philadelphia must animate the entirety of our economy-shaping infrastructure — business leadership, finance, government, the social sector — to rebuild around jobs that reward and empower the many thousands of Philadelphians who were left behind even as business boomed over the past decade. This work won’t accept the depth of the recession as an excuse to return to a pre-COVID status quo. In the old “normal,” the two fastest growing jobs held by Philadelphians paid less than $23,000 per year, while eight of the top ten paid less than $40,000.  One third of working Philadelphians earned less than $13 an hour.

We can begin our new shared journey by understanding that Philadelphia won’t emerge stronger from the economic crisis unless we transform the demand for local goods and services that drives the creation of better jobs. Jobs occur when new customers appear.  Good jobs advance at the confluence of sustained demand, enlightened employers, and good public policy.

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Job-generating demand often arrives in the form of entirely new industries, but it can come from within, as well. A consortium of local anchor institutions, for instance, has coalesced around the goal of deploying some portion of their $5+ billion in annual purchasing power to grow local companies and jobs.

But we need more than anchors. What if every public company in Philadelphia localized even 10% of its currently out-of-market supply chain . Further, as Janice Urbaniak of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions writes, what if purchasing officers “asked suppliers for data on job growth, wage growth, job retention (broken out by race and gender), and company contributions to health care, retirement, and paid leave?”  Sourcing decisions would then not merely shape new business opportunities, they would incentivize the creation of good frontline jobs.

A Good Jobs Project would also spur new models for high-road employment. Let’s bring together Philadelphia’s health insurance heavyweights, along with government and philanthropy, to test new ways of compensating home health aides, a job that employs 75,000 Philadelphians and pays — on average – $11.68 an hour. As other municipalities rightly convene philanthropic partners to experiment with Universal Basic Income, let’s make Philadelphia a pioneering city for advancing the Earned Income Tax Credit — a federal program that turns poor-paying jobs into living wage jobs, yet is not claimed by an estimated 200,000 eligible Pennsylvanians every year.

And what if Philadelphia, the birthplace of the B-Corps movement, became home base for advancing entrepreneurial efforts — at for-profits and nonprofits alike — to rewrite the social contract between employers and workers?  Social enterprise accelerators — supporting businesses that exist at the intersection of market forces and societal needs — would allow us to develop new models for re-employing returning citizens and others who found a footing in the pre-COVID economy, but were likely the first to lose their jobs in recent months.

Tilting our economy toward good jobs entails investing in small firms in new ways, especially as they recover from the ravages of the recession.  More than 100,000 Philadelphians work at companies with fewer than 20 employees, but we often decouple small business development from workforce development.

Philadelphia’s burgeoning impact investment field would do well to follow the path of the Quality Jobs Fund, a $100 million venture of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and the New World Foundation that finances small business expansion with a focus on investments that create good, dignified jobs. We might also learn from an Ohio proposal to grant money to employees so they can become worker-owners of their cash-strapped companies, simultaneously saving Main Street businesses and shaping quality jobs.

The segment of Philadelphia’s economy where it will be most necessary and most difficult to transform job quality is the besieged hospitality industry. As our trendy restaurants and renowned tourist sites helped fuel Philadelphia’s downtown renaissance, we never shared our prosperity with hospitality workers; the Pennsylvania tipped minimum wage is just $2.83.

In normal times, restaurants pull a high-wire economics act on slim margins, but investment in talent can’t be ignored. Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer notes, “Business, like life, is about how you make people feel. If I take care of my employees, they’ll take care of the guests.”

How can we craft novel ways to take care of hospitality employees in a slow recovery? Devastated by COVID, these jobs won’t return to near baseline levels until there is a viable vaccine, if not many months later.  Targeted wage subsidies might be a start to helping restaurants and their workers return. Another hopeful example comes from College Together, a Philadelphia nonprofit that offers restaurant workers debt-free college and learning supports, creating career launching pads from entry level jobs.

A Good Jobs Project would acknowledge that we can’t train our way out of the recession, but we must reimagine how we ready workers for a new normal of rapidly changing jobs. In the 2008 recession, apprenticeship programs for young adults helped countries like Germany maintain low youth unemployment rates while grooming a future workforce.

Philadelphia, with its strong infrastructure in employer-driven training and youth workforce development, should set out to become the U.S. exemplar for new economy apprenticeships, focusing not just on traditional building trades programs, but also on IT, healthcare and advanced manufacturing.

Finally, this new civic project for Philadelphia requires that we deploy every possible policy tool. Our local governments pour millions into tax forgiveness programs in the interest of growth — Keystone Opportunity Zones, CDC Tax Credits, Real Estate Abatements. Not one of these programs mandates the creation and retention of family-sustaining jobs as a return on public investment.

There are even bigger policy swings to take, none more important than securing from Harrisburg the right to reset our $7.25 minimum wage. An all-in good jobs effort would require full-throated support for a higher wage from Philadelphia’s business community. A hundred years ago, the Ford Motor Company doubled the average factory worker’s wage to $5 a day. Refusing to view labor as a cost to be minimized, Ford ushered in a new middle class fueled by consumer demand and expansive — though not fully inclusive — prosperity.

Similarly, in Philadelphia, the broad manufacturing base that made us the “Workshop of the World” gave us one of the highest home-ownership rates in the country by the mid-20th century. In 2020, equity again is growth. The pathway to a flourishing Philadelphia is paved with shared gains from an economic rebuild.

Zeynep Tom, an MIT professor who champions business growth through good job creation, offers that “An economy with more good jobs is neither inevitable nor utopian. It is a choice we can make.”

So, it is up to us — as professionals, but also as individuals. What jobs touch our lives every day, and how can we make them better? Do we know how much the people who clean our offices and deliver our groceries earn? How about those who watch our children or care for our elders? If we deem it unfair that these workers we now recognize as “essential” have to survive on $19,000 a year, or with no health benefits or sick leave, what will we choose to do about it?

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