The Philadelphia Tribune: West Philly skills initiative is working

Sunday, August 17, 2014

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The University City District nonprofit is tasked with improving the quality of life in West Philadelphia.

The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) is part of that mission. It’s goal is to provide solutions to complex economic challenges, such as too many unfilled or high turnover jobs at some of Philadelphia’s largest employers and too many unemployed West Philadelphians.

The group released a 2014 impact report this week.

“Over the past four years I believe the skills initiative has proven the power of leveraging the collaborative muscle of major employers, philanthropic funders and cutting-edge human capital strategies to effectively put people back to work,” said Sheila Ireland, director of WPSI. “I am proud of what we were able to accomplish in these past four years, but my mission is to connect West Philadelphia [residents] to opportunities in University City by leveraging the might of the institutions and major employers.”

University City has 72,000 employees working in the various educational, scientific and human services sectors — equal to roughly 10 percent of the city’s entire workforce.

The WPSI was created to connect employers seeking talent with West Philadelphians seeking opportunity, but the obstacles the initiative is attempting to overcome are daunting.

Greater West Philadelphia is suffering from a crippling 15-percent unemployment rate — four points higher than the city average — and 21-percent of residents there are living at or below the poverty line.

Forty-five percent of West Philadelphia households have incomes below $25,000 per year, while only 21 percent of the adult population aged 25 or older has a bachelor’s degree.

To combat these numbers and trends, the initiative facilitates three separate job training modules that run for four, 14 and 26 weeks, respectively.

There’s a four-week program which trains for entry level positions at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and a 14-week program for the landscaping and groundskeeper training program. The 26-week program relates to the initiative’s certified medical assistant program. Through that aspect of the initiative, 20 West Philadelphians attained positions at CHOP.

The initiative also provides for 20 hours per week of wage subsidy supports to allow students to receive full-time wages for part-time work. WPSI also provided career development workshops and supports that increase readiness for college and careers.

The education component has proven valuable to Ashley Mason. Through several internship placements at Penn Medicine, Mason developed a career plan that helped her become a health system administrator.

Mason is preparing to start a bachelor’s program at Drexel University while continuing to provide patient services at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

“What I like about the program is that it gave me a head start in college and the workplace, and it made me realize what I want to do,” Mason said. “I met so many great people — I got a mentor, I got connections.”

Ireland said it’s stories from individuals such as Mason that show the initiative is working.

“[West Philadelphians] want to work, are ready to work and are capable of working, if given the opportunity,” Ireland said. “I call it, ‘Mining local gold.’ Many institutions will go to Oregon to recruit employees, but there are people right here in West Philadelphia that have the skill set and capacity to do the job.”