by Natalie Kostelni
In the earliest days of the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, University City District, which created the program, thought it would start out helping youth and young adults find jobs.
“That was the low-hanging fruit,” said Matt Bergheiser, executive director of University City District.
The pioneering and successful program has since gone beyond young adults and is being replicated in areas beyond University City. It has also expanded into increasingly better quality jobs, which can be life-changing.
Established in 2011, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative trains people who live in the neighborhood and connects them to employment opportunities with the medical and educational institutions in the community. It does that by partnering with these institutions to determine the jobs they need to fill and working with each to devise training programs that teach the skills necessary for someone to successfully accomplish the job.
In the program’s first year, it had seven people graduate and four were placed in jobs. It increased the number of graduates every year until 2020, when the program was canceled between March and June because of the coronavirus. This year, the number of graduates is set to be the most the skills initiative has ever had at a projected 159, and it could be as high as 200 in 2022.
A cohort enrolled in the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative.
Of the 734 people who graduated from the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative over the last decade, 95% found employment and 83% retained employment for more than a year. Graduates earned an average hourly wage of $15.49 in those jobs.
“The work is really hard and complicated and there are no shortcuts,” Bergheiser said. “You co-design programs with employers. You have to build trust with employers and build trust with the community and if you don’t do both, you don’t succeed.”
What has helped is that the employers in University City, including many educational, health and research institutions, are willing to work with UCD and the skills initiative. They include University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine, Drexel University, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., and Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
Matt Bergheiser, executive director, University City District.
One of those barriers was convincing employers that not every job required a high school diploma or a certain experience level.
Bergheiser noted that the skills initiative was started in the throes of the Great Recession and gained traction even during a difficult economic period, and he’s found that to be the case during the pandemic as well.
“First off, the most exhilarating part of last year, despite the state of the economy, is that West Philadelphia has been busier than ever,” he said. “Employers still want talent. Employers run on frontline talent and we have formed a system to hire locally.”
Within six months of the onset of the pandemic, the skills initiative moved its training online and is on track to place an unprecedented number of people in jobs in 2021 with an average starting wage for its graduates close to $17 an hour, which is an all-time high.
As a result of its success, UCD has had citywide employers including SEPTA and the Philadelphia Fire Department reach out to explore ways they can work with the skills initiative for positions they have available. UCD has so far expanded its partnerships to include PIDC and is working with employers at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to build a pipeline of trained employees in Southwest and South Philadelphia.
“We’re in the early stages of that but it’s incredibly exciting,” Bergheiser said.