Growth Industry: Cultivating Employment and Entrepreneurship in an Evolving Philly Neighborhood

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Originally published at


Growth Industry: Cultivating Employment and Entrepreneurship in an Evolving Philly Neighborhood

When Mark Gay finally came to the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI), he had applied to forty-two jobs in a little over three months and had yet to land a single interview. A native of West Philadelphia, Gay spent the early portion of his adult life hustling drugs in his neighborhood near 52nd Street and Haverford Avenue. That life landed him in prison and, subsequently, made finding employment nearly impossible. 

He was ready for a change.

Gay applied to the WPSI and was accepted into their nascent University City Landscaping Trades Social Enterprise. The 12-week training taught him both the technical skills and the soft skills required to succeed in the workplace. 

"At one point, I had a weakness to talk about what I had been through," recalls Gay. "It was valuable to learn how to open up because it was something I had to do to move forward. It's not just about employment, it's about life skills." 

Of the fifteen participants who began the demanding program, six graduated. Gay was one of them. 

A workforce development program run by University City District (UCD), WPSI connects West Philly employers with neighborhood job-seekers who have been trained specifically for the employers' needs. The power of the program stems from UCD's strong partnerships with local anchor institutions including Penn Medicine, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Drexel University's College of Medicine. 

These relationships ensure high placement rates for program graduates and impressive retention rates for employers in positions that typically have high turnover.

Although WPSI was established in 2010, the landscaping arm is relatively new. UCD manages and manicures green space across the neighborhood, and that work has traditionally been contracted out. What if they could bring that work in-house and serve their workforce goals at the same time? And if they could make the program work, then maybe they'd be in the running for the millions in landscaping dollars spent by institutions across University City.

According to Sheila Ireland, vice president of Workforce Solutions for UCD, prior to launching the program, WPSI was serving mostly women in their thirties. The organization wanted to reach a broader demographic -- specifically young African-American men, including those with criminal records -- so when ValleyCrest Landscape Companies approached them about employees, they saw an opportunity. 

Graduates of the landscaping program are mostly male, and though the average age of successful graduates is about thirty-two, the range has spanned from eighteen through sixty-two. The one thing graduates have in common is an understanding of the opportunity they've been given. 

"The guys we work with know what's at stake," insists Ireland.

One of Ireland's goals is to help program participants see that work doesn't have to be a necessary evil, but rather something that brings satisfaction and joy. She hopes that some of the graduates might even be able to start their own landscaping businesses, employing even more West Philadelphians. 

"We are moving to a more entrepreneurial economy," she explains. "[That] is what's great about the landscaping initiative."

For many graduates like Gay -- who describes his training at WPSI as "a life experience" -- the process is transformative. He urges others to go through the program. 

Ireland describes the landscaping trades program as a "social enterprise." Yes, it's a business, but one that maximizes social impact rather than profits, and improves human and environmental well being. This is UCD's first foray into a social enterprise, and Ireland is excited to see it grow. 

"I've been in the people business for a while, and this is so immensely rewarding," she enthuses. "We want to create something that has its own legs -- that isn't totally sustained by philanthropy."

To kickstart that leap, UCD received a $50,000 Win-Win Challenge Grant from the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN), a program of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. JOIN is a partnership among philanthropic organizations, local government, community groups and employers that works to minimize the skills mismatch in Philly. The goal is to give job seekers the 21st century skills they need to succeed in the workforce. 

The impetus for the Win-Win Challenge was to seed more workforce partnerships that bring together employers and training organizations, a model that JOIN has identified as successful. It's the model that WPSI already utilized -- in fact, UCD received seed funding from JOIN to launch WPSI and hire its first director.

"Building on the success that WPSI has had and leveraging UCD's partnerships, we wanted to help build their social enterprise," explains Hoa Pham, program manager for JOIN. "We wanted to see how the social enterprise could serve as a jobs incubator, and we wanted to see how social enterprises could serve as a self-sustaining model for workforce development. There aren't many social enterprises that operate in the workforce development space."

The Win-Win Challenge is broken up into two phases. Currently, UCD is in the nine- to twelve-month Planning Phase, exploring the viability of the landscaping initiative by creating a business plan and developing relationships with institutions to support the program. Based on their current numbers, Ireland says the enterprise will be profitable in three years. 

JOIN is funding four projects for Phase I, and they will winnow those projects down to two for the Implementation Phase. 

But UCD isn't waiting until that announcement to get started. They've adopted a "learning while doing" attitude and have already run pilot training programs, like the one Gay attended through WPSI. Pham says this is one of the things that makes UCD such a wonderful partner. 

"Despite their tremendous success, they embrace challenges and run towards continuous improvement," she explains. "They move really fast."

The social enterprise is already starting to take off. WPSI has contracts with heavy-hitters like Brandywine Realty Trust and the Philadelphia Water Department, and the organization recently completed an overhaul of Squirrel Hill Park for free. 

"One of the things we're talking about it how we're going to give back to the community," says Ireland. "How can we help the organizations who can't afford to do this [landscaping work] for themselves?"

If the social enterprise model is successful, JOIN hopes to replicate it nationally. 

"We'd like to see the lessons learned from this process," says Pham. "We like to plug in anything we're learning here to other training programs throughout the country." 

For Mark Gay, it's rewarding to see his work directly contribute to improving the community where he lives and works. 

"Just to be a part of beautifying West Philly is really gratifying," he muses. "People go wrong when they don't think they have a chance. WPSI has everything to offer to get you where you want to be. Hard work really pays off. I love what I do."

SAMANTHA WITTCHEN is a designer, writer, harpist and co-founder of iSpring, a sustainability strategy and analytics firm working in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. You can follow her efforts to make the world a better place and become a harp rockstar on Twitter at @samwittchen.

The Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) has partnered with Flying Kite to explore how good jobs are created and filled in Greater Philadelphia. Stay tuned as we follow the progress of these exciting grants and track the city's continued workforce development challenges.