This advice was dispensed at Filling the Gap: Workforce Development, a panel discussion hosted by Citizens on Sept. 21 that brought together some of the city’s most inﬂuential leaders to discuss barriers preventing a more inclusive workforce and strategies to overcome them. In her closing remarks, panelist Kristy Shuda McGuire of The Wistar Institute summarized the discussion by highlighting that creating more equitable opportunities happens one company, opportunity, and employee at a time.
“Philadelphia can unfortunately be a tale of two cities,” said Craig Carnaroli, senior EVP of University of Pennsylvania and keynote speaker for the event.
“We have well-educated culture and citizens and institutions of breathtaking innovations. Yet, we are also unfortunately one of the most impoverished of America’s top 10 cities. These two narratives create a gap—and as leaders, we would be wise to fill that gap,” he said.
Thirty fiver percent of Philadelphia residents over the age of 25 have college degrees, the highest percentage in the city’s recent history and the first time the city matches the national average, according to Citizens. Through the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, many saw the Philadelphia region as a hub of workshops for industrial manufacturing — a status the city has largely shifted away from.
“We had systems in place to train that [industrial] workforce, but since then we’ve really had to adapt,” Carnaroli said.
Left unaddressed, the workforce development gap could result in issues that will continue to impact the city such as rises in crime, fighting poverty, declining personal health and decreased educational attainment.
Sometimes, the barrier between a qualified employee and a career-enhancing opportunity is being able to find that opportunity. In response to workforce development challenges, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) was founded in 2009. This program seeks to connect local institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia directly with local residents seeking employment and career development.
WPSI focuses on creating customized pipelines for employers to find and nurture talent within the West Philadelphia community to not just connect individuals to jobs, but meaningful careers.
With over 1,500 participants since its inception, the program has achieved a 93% placement rate in jobs, earning a total of $96.5 million in wages. The average hourly rate for WPSI participants is $19.85, 20% higher than their earnings before joining the program, according to Citizens.
Citizen’s has been a lead contributor to the program, providing more than $630,000 in funding.
This is just one of the strategies the city is enacting to develop talent. The five panelists discussed challenges that impact the workforce in their specific industries, trends to watch out for, and strategies that could help connect the right worker to the right opportunity.
Securing talent in a changing landscape
For Tom Holt, CEO of Holt Logistics, the biggest challenge is securing the next generation of talent. A third- generation family business started in 1926, the company provides commercial, accounting, marketing and technology services to marine terminal operators, warehouses and logistics companies at the Port of Philadelphia.
COVID-19 completely changed the landscape of job seekers, Holt said, saying that it became harder to find applicants emerging from the pandemic. The company finds talent through in-person events such as job fairs, involvement in high schools and higher educational institution partners.
“We’re not meds, we’re not eds — we’re blue collar, wake up every morning, work hard in harsh environments,” he said. “You can’t load a truck remotely.”
Talent retention is a priority for Holt, which he fosters by paying employees wages they can take care of families with, working with labor unions and finding roles within the company that play to employees’ strengths.
Balancing changing workforce preferences has hardly been a blue-collar specific challenge. Dan Fitzpatrick, president of the Mid-Atlantic Region for Citizens and board chair of Philadelphia Works, noted that since the pandemic, the bank has started to prioritize the importance of teams working together in person. In 2022, the bank encouraged three days of in-office work and transitioned to a mandatory three days a week in the office in 2023.
“We believe in a culture where everything is about the team, and we can’t be a real team that never sees each other,” he said.
AI and growing technologies
It’s no secret advancements in artificial intelligence have already begun impacting the workplace, with breakthroughs like OpenAI’s ChatGPT becoming a tool present in the workplace seemingly overnight. From automation to logistics and forecasting, many believe AI could take jobs that once required human effort, which could further widen the rift in workforce development.
“The jobs aren’t going away—they’re just changing, and we need to make sure we’re ready for that,” Holt said. “We’ve been using automation and AI for the last few years — the skillsets are changing, but the jobs aren’t going to go away.”
While AI continues to become more prevalent, workers are expected to enter the job force with a baseline understanding of technologies used in day-to-day life. In this changing landscape, future workers should at least be digitally literate enough to understand how to navigate resources needed for online learning by the time they’re in high school, panelist Sheila Ireland believes.
“If we don’t have people ready earlier for the changes in the workplace — automation, AI, all the things going on especially in the city with a great digital divide, we’re going to create a chasm we’re not going to be able to traverse,” she said.
Ireland is president and CEO of Philadelphia OIC, an organization that aims to fight unemployment, poverty and illiteracy in the region by providing job training and educational opportunities. Ireland has spent many years of her career combating unemployment at both the city and state level.
“If I could change anything, I would give people support. I would support digital literacy and I would support continued lifelong learning career paths and professional development within organizations so people understand they’re not just replaceable widgets in the machine that makes other people money, but that there’s a future there for them as well,” she said.
Connecting with students
As an increasing number of adults in Philadelphia receive college degrees, educational institutions are offering more programs to directly connect students with career opportunities.
As president of Community College of Philadelphia, Guy Generals has seen firsthand the shortage of teachers for welding and other trades. While there are grants and funding available for students, no such equivalent exists for workers seeking development.
Soon to celebrate its first year, the college’s Career and Advanced Technology Center located at 48th and Market streets was created to bring career training and opportunities directly to the community. The center offers courses in manufacturing, healthcare, and transportation technologies, giving students hands-on auto experience with partnerships such as Toyota and SEPTA.
Still early in its lifespan, the center will continue to grow and provide more opportunities.
“Community College of Philadelphia has traditionally been a transfer institution, and we’re relatively new in the space of workforce development. As we establish these partnerships, they grow one at a time. There’s no magic wand,” Generals said.
Similarly, The Wistar Institute is trying to create more equitable opportunities for students. Based in University City, the life science institute has global presence in biomedical research focusing on cancer, immunology, infectious diseases, and vaccine development.
To create more equitable opportunities for students, Wistar has begun to pay students for their participation in its biomedical technician training program. McGuire, dean of Biomedical Studies, believes that can open the door to students who otherwise would not be able to participate.
“In order to have equitable opportunities, we need to reverse that equation,” McGuire said.
The institute has partnered with the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative and Iovance Biotherapeutics in the Navy Yard to design the training program for adults living and learning in Philadelphia.