The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative has become a leading workforce model.

The New Localism
By Bruce Katz

I am thrilled to co-author this newsletter with Megan Humes, a Senior Associate with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), a nonprofit founded by Boston Consulting Group.

For the past several months, Megan and I (ably assisted by Dan Vogel at CPI and guided by Matt Bergheiser and Sarah Steltz at University City District) have conducted a City Case of the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative.

These City Cases seek to provide a road map to scale and replicate the institutional and financing models that have driven large-scale urban transformation across the United States and beyond. By demonstrating how reorganizing public, private and civic resources in creative ways can build community wealth, we aim to contribute to a new paradigm for developing inclusive cities.

Last week, the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, Accelerator for America, and the Centre for Public Impact released West Philadelphia Skills Initiative: A Model for Urban Workforce Development.

I have written about the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) before, notably in a report on Opportunity Zones last year. WPSI was founded in 2011 by the University City District (UCD), an economic development nonprofit modeled like a Business Improvement District (BID).

Here is what you need to know:

Why was WPSI formed?

UCD was formed to change the trajectory of West Philly. In 1997, years of increasing poverty, blight, and crime culminated in the murder of a grad student just off the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. Local leaders created UCD to coordinate trash removal and safety ambassador services to make the neighborhood “clean and safe”. Today, UCD also builds public spaces, coordinates economic development, and promotes University City to a wide audience.

In 2009, UCD and its board identified two critical problems: too many unfilled or high turnover positions at University City’s largest employers, and too many unemployed West Philadelphians. UCD founded WPSI to create a pipeline of unemployed residents to these jobs– moving residents into higher-wage jobs and reducing turnover and hiring costs for WPSI’s employer partners.

Launched in 2011, this extremely successful workforce development program placed 97% of 2019 graduates (29% higher than the last reported public system rates). Overall, WPSI has connected 530 West Philadelphians, a remarkable 95% of graduates, to full-time positions with access to benefits or with a direct path to full-time employment. Graduates earn 25% higher wages on average, keeping $37 million in the community over the last 8 years. At one employer, WPSI hires were 36% more likely to stay 2 or more years than traditional hires, reducing HR costs.

Importantly, WPSI links employers to a traditionally hard-to-reach and underutilized labor pool- residents who have been unemployed for 33 weeks on average, including some returning from incarceration.

WPSI’s best-in-class model innovative practices can be scaled and replicated in cities across the U.S. Its groundbreaking formula of employer-driven skill-building shows how to leverage global innovation districts to keep income in some of our most disadvantaged neighborhoods, as a first step towards community wealth building.

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