Philadelphia Business Journal: Going beyond 'train and pray' jobs initiatives

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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According to an August New York Times article, there are now more unfilled jobs available in the United States than there were before the Great Recession began in late 2007. This baffling challenge – a surplus of jobs, but still too many unemployed Americans – is particularly evident here in the city of Philadelphia. While solving the dilemma is not easy, it begins with one fundamental need: access to education and job skills training.

Ask any Philadelphian which industries define the face of our city’s job market, and you’ll hear: “meds and eds,” or health care and universities. But these jobs require specialized training. How can at-risk young adults gain the skills to set them on the path to career success? The answer lies in programs that help people connect to livable-wage jobs.

Take, for example, the neighborhood of West Philadelphia. The anchor institutions here, which include the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – employ 72,000 people, representing approximately 10.5 percent of all jobs in the city. By contrast, 31 percent of the population in this same geographic area lives below the poverty level, with 45 percent of households reporting income below $25,000 per year.

University City District’s (UCD) West Philadelphia Skills Initiative connects these neighborhood residents to neighborhood jobs. The program works with progressive, community-oriented universities and health systems to identify positions of high need and growth potential, while at the same time developing training programs designed specifically for each job. With the support of community partners and local businesses, the initiative recruits local residents into “career pipelines” and coaches participants for up to six months to hone their skills.

Whereas most workforce development efforts follow a “train and pray” model – training people and hoping that they will find jobs – programs such as the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative work in partnership with local, committed employers to design recruitment, selection and assessment strategies, as well as training solutions. A combination of soft skills, hard skills and on-the-job training prepares participants to become certified medical assistants, landscapers/groundskeepers, hospital aides and more. The approximately $10,000 that it costs to train each person is paid back almost immediately to the public sector through a broadened tax base, and to the private sector through reduced turnover and job search costs.

There is no doubt that today’s unemployed need knowledge and skills in order to secure stable employment and lead economically prosperous lives. By identifying real jobs with real vacancies and then preparing the unemployed to excel in these jobs, programs such as the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative mitigate the large skills gap and put people to work in their own communities. We encourage other American cities to implement similar training programs in order to fill vacant jobs, empower their residents and strengthen their neighborhoods.

Tom Woodward is Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Market president of Bank of America. Matt Bergheiser is executive director of the University City District and chairman of the Community College of Philadelphia Board of Trustees.