Barra Foundation Awards Grant to Support UCD’S West Philadelphia Skills Center for Economic Advancement

Monday, July 1, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Mark Christman, [email protected] or 215-243-0555

(Philadelphia, PA) – The West Philadelphia Skills Center for Economic Advancement, University City District’s (UCD) training site for preparing and connecting West Philadelphia residents to jobs with West Philadelphia’s major employers, will scale up its operations with a generous $82,000 grant from The Barra Foundation.

Although over 10% of the total jobs in Philadelphia are found in University City – with nearly 70,000 positions – 31% of West Philadelphians live below the poverty level and unemployment is at 15%. With that in mind, UCD launched the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) in 2010 in an effort to connect local employers seeking talent with local residents seeking opportunity. Building on close partnerships with University City anchor institutions that include Penn Medicine and Drexel College of Medicine, WPSI provides employer-driven training programs designed to help West Philadelphians succeed in positions traditionally plagued by high turnover.

In 2012, support from the Local Initiatives Support Coalition helped WPSI expand by establishing the West Philadelphia Skills Center for Economic Advancement. Housed at Community College of Philadelphia West, the Center provides intensive training to address the soft skills gaps of low-skill and entry-level workers, helping these job seekers both find and retain employment. With the generous support of The Barra Foundation, the Center will expand this workforce development model from pilot phase to a holistic and fully-integrated approach to addressing employment disparities in West Philadelphia. Whereas most workforce efforts follow a “train and pray” model – training people and hoping that they will find jobs – WPSI begins by partnering with major employers, and co-designing curricula and placement strategies with them.

“In our pilot phase alone, we’ve seen remarkable success and an overwhelming need for our services,” said Sheila Ireland, WPSI’s director. “Feedback from our participants has shown that they find this to be an eye-opening experience in terms of how they think about having careers and the contributions they can make as employees.” Participant Audrey Ledgister agrees: “This is a life-changing program – it goes beyond workforce development, it’s life development.”

Sarah Steltz, Drexel University’s workforce development manager, added, “I can confidently say that WPSI is making an incredible impact in this community. Not only do they have a reputation for outstanding work in this space, but I’ve also had the opportunity to see that work in action. Throughout Drexel’s campuses I see the faces of those who have benefited from WPSI’s training opportunities and connected to work with us. It’s mutually beneficial – they’re pleased to be back in the workforce and we’re thrilled to have them.”

UCD sees WPSI as the connective tissue that “aligns the systems” of the neighborhood anchor institutions with the needs of the West Philadelphia community. There are approximately 1200 business improvement districts across the country, with intensive, high-level relationships with major employers and property owners. Only UCD has made the leap from the physical improvements and revitalization efforts that typify business improvement districts to a more holistic and innovative focus on economic opportunity, exemplified by The Center’s early successes.

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