Dr. Romaine Thrower’s journey to working for the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative seemed destined from the start. Romaine grew up in West Philadelphia, where she attended Overbrook High School and was instilled with a desire to serve at a young age as a member of the Vine Memorial Baptist Church at 56th and Girard.
Romaine has always possessed a passion for learning, community involvement, and serving others. Growing up she captained a drill team, she would help her family serve Thanksgiving meals to seniors from her church, and as the first member of her family to go off to college, she had to figure things out mostly on her own. “There was really no one to hold my hand,” Romaine remembers. “I had to bring the papers to my mom to fill out,” she says, referring to application documents for college and financial aid.
The hard work paid off and Romaine attended Millersville University in central Pennsylvania to pursue a degree in English with a minor in Philosophy. After graduating, she spent a year teaching kindergarten at a private school. When this wasn’t a fit, she decided she would try working with adults, and this decision landed her in a corporate training role in West Philadelphia working first with Penn and eventually with CHOP and the VA Hospital. During her early career, she enrolled in a graduate program to receive an MA in Adult Education and Leadership, which she obtained in 2016.
Romaine liked the training elements of the positions she held but yearned to do something with more of an impact on the community. “I was making a difference, but I knew I could make more of an impact to people in my community that were having trouble connecting to job opportunities at the local anchor institutions.” She also wanted to continue her education and enrolled in a Ph.D. program for Educational Leadership and Management.
Romaine’s first taste of workforce development came in 2018 when one of her sisters asked her to help plan a job fair for members of the West Philadelphia community. They organized the event and got employers to show up, but very few community members attended. “I knew there were people in the community that needed these jobs, and no one showed up?” She figured there must be another way.
She began to research non-profits in West Philadelphia that dealt with job training and discovered an open position at the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative. “I always knew about University City District,” she says. “I remember the guys in the uniforms, but I didn’t know WPSI was a part of that. I didn’t know this existed in my own backyard.”
Armed with a strong resume, a graduate degree, and a connection to West Philadelphia, Romaine applied for an open position. She knew the organization was a fit from her first conversations with members of the Skills Initiative team. “There weren’t really many programs when I was graduating high school that were directly serving the community where I was from. In our communities we have to seek out the opportunities—they aren’t presented to us in a nice, packaged way.” She felt like the Skills Initiative was a great opportunity, especially for people who don’t want to seek a degree right away, or people returning from gaps in their employment. During the interview process, she says she also felt the passion the Skills Initiative staff had toward their work.
Romaine joined WPSI in February of 2020 as a Manager of Employer Services. Her role involved her meeting with employer partners including Penn, Drexel, and CHOP to see what available positions were like and to try and evaluate the quality of the jobs being considered for training partnerships. Because of Romaine’s experience on the corporate side, she could quickly understand what employers were looking for in candidates. This role also allowed her to see the full scope of the work WPSI does, from the time we identify positions to when we meet with employers to developing the custom training parameters for a partnership.
Much has happened in the two years since Romaine joined the Skills Initiative. With the rest of the WPSI team, she had to figure out how to pivot to offering online services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She incorporated her work with WPSI into her Ph.D. research and vice versa, pulling lessons she learned from her research into Skills Initiative classrooms. She finished her Ph.D. and added the title of Doctor of Education to her resume. Recently, Romaine was promoted to Senior Manager of Training Programs, where she’s now combining her two loves of adult training and community engagement.
Romaine loves watching the change that people who join our program undergo. “The first day of orientation, [participants] are so quiet and shy. We ask what they’re good at and they reply, ‘I don’t know.’ They can always tell me what someone else is good at, but not themselves.” She says by the time they start prepping for interviews, they’ve learned to highlight their strengths and begin to brag about themselves. “And then by the closing focus group, you see they’ve become a family. They’re advocating for each other, they’re egging each other on to get the job.” And thanks to the training they receive, over 90% of WPSI graduates do connect with employment.
Although she’s too humble to use these phrases herself, in her short time with the Skills Initiative Romaine has served as an inspiration and a role model to people going through the program. Over 90% of WPSI participants are Black, and in Romaine they can see a successful Black woman from their own neighborhood who identified what she wanted out of her career and has worked hard to get there.
We’re very lucky that Romaine’s career journey has led her to the Skills Initiative.