UNIVERSITY CITY REVIEW • West Philly Skills Initiative Continues To Make A Significant Difference

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Originally published by University City Review

West Philly Skills Initiative Continues To Make A Significant Difference

Students enrolled in medical skills class. Photo: Courtesy of the West Philly Skills Imitative
By Nicole Contosta
Wed, Jun 29, 2016
Today, West Philadelphia employs over 75,000 people. When the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) formed in 2010, it employed 72,000 people. Conversely, 31 percent of West Philadelphia lived below the poverty line. And 45 percent of its households had incomes below $25,000 a year. West Philadelphia’s unemployment rate stood at 15 percent compared to 11 percent citywide.

Since its inception, the WPSI has trained 500 students. Ninety-five percent have gone on to find career ladder jobs with family sustaining wages.

“We define a family sustaining wage as $13 an hour,” explained Sheila Ireland, the University City District’s (UCD) Vice President of Workforce Solutions. “Generally, it’s full time work because part-time is not moving the dime on the economic opportunity divides.” 

Ireland, who helped launched the WPSI, met with this reporter at its new location on the 3800 block of Market Street. The move, Ireland explained, “was about expanding capacity and being able to serve more people. We’re ramping up staff as well to be able to do more.”

Based on the WPSI’s overwhelming success, “there’s pressure from both employer partners looking for workers and West Philadelphians looking for jobs.”

Ireland then proceeded to give this reporter the “skinny” on why.

In the past, employee partners have contacted WPSI because there’s either a high-level of turnover or they need better quality service. “They will come to us specifically for the quality that our graduates have taken to those institutions,” Ireland explained.

Speaking of quality, a class of fifteen students was assembled in a classroom for training with Allied Barton during our interview. “This is our 7th or 8th training session with Allied Baron,” Ireland said, explaining the program last 4-6 weeks. “It depends on the needs of the job. Obviously here are many different kinds of security ambassadors such as bike—they get more training.”

Other programs have longer sessions. “Our med skill jobs such as certified medical assistants, that’s going on now too, those programs run for six months. They train and go to work at the same time,” Ireland said. “Part of that is ramping up the number of hors they spend in training.”

Whether it’s a month or six- month program, WPSI implements the same standards for success. Part of that results from employer engagement.

“Employers will come in three times,” Ireland said. “The employer does a session with their training staff. The [employee] will have a mock interview them. And [the employee] will have a final interview with the same people—so it’s warm.

The other thing with us,” Ireland continued, “is we’re using the same standards the employer uses for their employee.” Thus, when the program is complete, “you’re either showing [or not showing] that you’re a good fit for that employer.”

At the same time, WPSI also wants its perspective employees to want the employer.

“When people are in the program, they’re looking for work,” Ireland said. “Let’s say they’re in the Penn Medicine program, they’re also looking for work outside of Penn Medicine. The reality is, they need to find the best place to be successful…it’s a relationship and they should like them. You want to make it so getting up and going to work is easy.”

As already noted, most of the jobs are full-time. That said, some who secure jobs at CHOP for $22 an hour chooses part-time work to “take care of their kids or go to school. But they have the option to be full-time there. The same thing goes for Allied Barton,” Ireland said, noting it pays a little less than $13 an hour to start.

Another factor that makes WPSI successful rests in its ability to forge a healthy environment for employer and employee.

“My background is in human resources training and organizational development consulting,” Ireland said. “I’ve spent my life helping people develop tools to do their jobs more effectively…but there was a piece missing. If you give people a tool they can use it or not use it. Then they go back to work. And whatever problems that existed are still there,” Ireland said, explaining, “as an organizational consultant, you might say, ‘you might not want to do that if you want your employees to be happy and stay.”

The WPSI, Ireland continued, “has the ability to leverage the employer. This is what we’re brining to you and you have to do x, y, and z. This leads to a high level of people being placed and a high level of retention.”

But at the end of the day, the most rewarding thing for Ireland “is seeing the immense change in people’s lives.”

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