University City job training getting results

Monday, October 28, 2013

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by Solomon Leach

After several months of sending out resumes and applying for jobs, all Joyce Bacon wanted was an interview - a chance to meet with an employer face-to-face to talk about her skills.

Little did Bacon know that chance would come at a world-renowned medical institution, and one not far from her home - Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In April, she was hired as a patient sitter, and recently promoted to in-patient clerk.

Bacon, 36, is among dozens of West Philadelphia residents who have gotten opportunities through the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, a job-training program created by the University City District (UCD) in 2010 to connect people with in-demand jobs at some of the area's largest institutions. Of the 95 people who have completed the program, 80 have been hired by employers who partner with the program, officials said.

"What they did for me was just help push out the confidence that was already within me," said Bacon, who has a background as a corrections officer and a schoolteacher. "The skills that I learned there will help me with future endeavors as well."

Not only are graduates of the program getting hired, but they're sticking around, often in positions that normally have a high turnover, officials claim. According to UCD, employers said the retention rate after six months is 92 percent.

"Basically, they get to do an extensive, long look at the applicant pool," said Sharon Thompsonowak, program manager of the skills initiative. "There's much less risk in hiring somebody from that situation than just hiring somebody from the street."

As an employer-driven initiative, the companies help develop the curricula and guarantee enough positions for the number of recruits, although they do not have to hire them. Participants can choose a four-week session that focuses on soft skills for entry-level positions or a six-month in-depth program for more advanced, technical careers in areas such as medical assistant, animal care and information technology. There is also an apprenticeship program for high school students.

The special-services district said the training was needed, evidenced by a 15 percent unemployment rate among West Philly residents despite being home to some of the city's largest employers, which account for more than 72,000 jobs.

"Thousands of people are disconnected from the economic mainstream," UCD Executive Director Matt Bergheiser said. "It's really been an effort to do just that - to work closely with our institutional partners, to work with people and neighbors to connect them with those jobs."

Bacon, a mother of four who is working on her bachelor's degree in psychology, calls working for CHOP a great opportunity that she might not have gotten without the skills initiative.

"Without the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative program, it just would have been hard getting into [an institution] like CHOP," she said.