PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER • In University City, giving the jobless a chance

Monday, July 18, 2016

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Commentary: In University City, giving the jobless a chance

By Matt Bergheiser • Updated: JULY 18, 2016 — 3:01 AM EDT


Imagine applying to 42 jobs in three months and not landing a single interview. Imagine what it feels like to realize that even jobs at the lowest rungs of the career ladder require online applications when you haven't turned on a computer in years. Imagine being so desperate for income that you'll ride two trains and a bus for a chance at back-breaking day labor that might not even materialize.

This story line is typical for citizens returning from prison, as a criminal conviction is often a career-ender, creating devastating impacts for individuals, families, and communities. Across the United States, 650,000 people are released from state prisons every year. Recent research suggests that in spite of applying for hundreds of openings, up to 75 percent will still be unemployed a year after their release, which merely fuels a vicious cycle of re-incarceration. And when returning citizens do find work, they are often relegated to informal, part-time, or temporary jobs that pay meager or inconsistent wages.

For some employers, however, criminal backgrounds are data points and not deal breakers. Green City Works, a landscaping subsidiary run by the economic development organization University City District (UCD), is one such business. Green City operates at the intersection of UCD's focus on public-space management and its efforts to connect unemployed West Philadelphians to job opportunities in University City's rapidly expanding eds-and-meds economy.

Green City also exists at the nexus of the traditional for-profit and nonprofit sectors, a line that is increasingly blurred by new enterprises aiming to deliver competitive value to customers while enveloping employees once shut out of the job market with supportive services, on-the-job training, and skill development. These services are offered through the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, a broader training effort that offers a career lifeline not just for the formerly incarcerated but also for others who have had trouble gaining a foothold in the job market.

The average trainee who walks through our doors has been unemployed for 53 weeks, and yet last year, we placed 95 percent of our graduates in permanent employment at an average wage of $13.60 an hour. Over five years, our business and anchor-institution partners have paid nearly $8 million in wages to program graduates.

While efforts like these are life-changing, they're not charity. When we place employees in permanent jobs at our university and health-system partners, we often cut frontline turnover in half. When we take on landscaping projects, we compete on price and quality of service just like anybody else.

Think of Green City as a way to intentionally couple burgeoning investments in green-space development and civic infrastructure with essential investments in talent development and opportunity infrastructure. Propelled by partners and clients like Penn and Drexel, Penn Medicine and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Amtrak and Brandywine Realty Trust, Green City already stewards 250,000 square feet of green space and is on a rapid growth trajectory, fueled by the expanding footprint of our anchor partners and UCD's own growing role in greening and beautifying the neighborhood. As we grow, revenues are plowed back into the business, affording us the opportunity to train and hire more individuals. For every $50,000 of annual landscaping revenue we earn, we can kick-start one career - and change a life.

A vital component of Green City Works' mission is to serve as a "high road employer," and we have committed to offering employees good wages, full-time positions, and advancement opportunities. As a reflection of the company's values, every single landscaper receives the same health benefits that I'm entitled to as executive director. Once people enter this kind of environment after many bumps in their career and life paths, there's a palpable sense of an unprecedented open door to opportunity. They haven't had the chance in their working lives to be valued or to be valuable; given that chance, their talent and eagerness to perform prove unstoppable.

Employers often fret about hiring someone who's been out of a job for months, or who might have the requisite skills but not the credentials. They also are likely to run the other way when a candidate's background check turns up a criminal record. Here's what I'd tell them:

Following a two-foot snowstorm last January, our Green City Works supervisor - who had experienced some rough patches in his life and spent eight years out of work - had salting responsibilities near 30th Street Station. We couldn't get a vehicle to his house, so we told him to stay home and wait out the cleanup. Instead, he trekked six blocks to the Market-Frankford El with two 50-pound bags of rock salt in tow, rode to his worksite, and did his job.

Wouldn't you sign up in a heartbeat for an employee who cares that much about his job? I'm glad I hired him first.


Matt Bergheiser is executive director of the University City District.[email protected]