COVID-19 testing — and Philly employment — get boost with 50 new lab jobs at Penn Medicine

The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) | Penn Lab Tech Cohort

Volunteer youth pastor Vanessa Dicks of Mantua’s Pleasant Grove Baptist Church has been connecting young people with employment opportunities for years. But when she saw Penn Medicine’s push to recruit new laboratory assistants from the West Philadelphia community in December, Dicks knew it was her turn to apply.


The 46-year-old single mother of two received a medical laboratory assistant associate’s degree in 1996 but could never land a job in the field because of a lack of experience. Her two chronic illnesses, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, also kept her from securing steady employment for 20 years.


That all changed in early January when Dicks started as one of 50 new full-time laboratory assistants for COVID-19 testing efforts. The positions were created through a partnership between Penn Medicine and the University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative. WPSI works to connect under- or unemployed Philadelphians who have been historically disadvantaged with job security and higher wages. For the 50 positions created through the partnership, there were 548 applicants.


“There is immense talent in these neighborhoods that is just waiting to bust down the door and change workplaces across University City,” UCD President Matt Bergheiser said. Penn Medicine worked with WPSI to create a training curriculum that required applicants to have just a high school diploma, lowering the barrier to entry for jobs that typically require a bachelor’s or associate’s degree. WPSI’s recruiting effort also prioritized skills like attention to detail and the ability to work under pressure that translate into job success, but aren’t contingent on higher education.


“For me it’s amazing to be fully in a career I’ve always wanted to go into and to be an answer to a part of the problem that is this global pandemic,” Dicks said. As a lab assistant, Dicks prepares nasal swabs for a diagnostic test to identify SARS-CoV-2. Her 3:30 p.m. through midnight shift allows her to keep up with her own medical appointments, and the job comes with eligibility for full benefits afforded to Penn Medicine employees.


The lab assistants were paid a stipend of $150 each week of their monthlong training, and receive wages starting at $18 per hour with benefits including tuition assistance. “This could become a life-changing job for someone because it not just changes their career trajectory, but their children can be affected by having access to those particular benefits,” WPSI director of programs Cait Garozzo said.


The lab assistants are part of Penn Medicine’s efforts to test students, faculty, and staff within the university. When COVID-19 testing is no longer a priority, the lab assistants will be transferred into other roles in Penn Medicine relevant to their interests.


“During the training program, there was discussion about what these other options could be so folks could gain interest,” Garozzo said. “The roles they are doing now make sense for where they’d like to continue to go.”


Penn Medicine officials said they are open to hiring additional lab assistants through WPSI in the future, but for now the health system is fully staffed in that department.


Dicks wants to continue her education with the university to become a pathologist using the system’s tuition reimbursement program. “I’m looking forward to the future. Who knows, I might create the cure for lupus or rheumatoid arthritis,” she said. “Sky’s the limit right now.”