She fell in love with the trees. Born and raised in West Philadelphia, she would pass through Penn as a curious and attentive child. Traveling on SEPTA with her mother, she was fascinated by the University’s arboreal campus, unique and scenic architecture, and pacific quality of life.
She grew up around 52nd and Market streets, on the border of University City, in a hard-working, working-class African-American neighborhood that was ravaged by drugs. She felt unsafe and uncomfortable. Penn looked secure and serene.
Playing, living, and working in University City was her dream.
She is Sonja Claxton, a clinical receptionist in her early 30s at the School of Dental Medicine.
She graduated from Temple University in January of 2008, and gave birth to a daughter soon after. The Great Recession made finding work almost impossible. She was out of the workforce for a year and a half before she was hired at a pharmaceutical company in King of Prussia.
She worked there for three years. During her first year, she commuted from West Philly on six different modes of public transportation. She had trouble getting back to the city before her daughter’s child care center closed. She looked for something closer.
She was hired at The Common Market in North Philly. She worked at the nonprofit food distributor for a year, then volunteered at the Free Library of Philadelphia, followed by temp work at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
In April of 2016, she found herself unemployed.
She had heard about the University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative and signed up for its listserv. She kept an eagle eye on new recruitments, and saw a posting for individuals with customer service and health care experience.
She wasn’t sure if she was qualified, but she applied. The application process was rigorous and strenuous. Nevertheless, she persisted.
She was selected for an interview and accepted into the program. She began her monthlong training in January 2017.
Initially timid and insecure, her confidence grew. She took detailed notes, participated in lectures, stayed after class, and did research on her own, including completing Penn Dental’s “Introduction to Dental Medicine” Coursera course.
“I felt like I was in school again,” Claxton says, “but I felt like the stakes were a lot higher.”
In February of 2017, she began working at Penn Dental.
She is here.
“I think the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative is one in a million,” Claxton says. “It was life-changing. It creates these pipelines for West Philadelphia to connect with University City.
“I feel like it was exactly what I needed at this level of my career. I just needed to get my foot in the door.”
The University City District (UCD) established the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) in 2011 to leverage its partnership with University City businesses, institutions, and residential communities to connect employers seeking talent to unemployed West Philadelphia residents looking for work.
University City, a 2.4-square-mile neighborhood, is a roaring economic engine for the city and region. The commercial, academic, and research organizations that inhabit the district, such as Penn and its Health System, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and the Drexel University College of Medicine, employ nearly 80,000 people and are responsible for its explosive fiscal growth, including $4 billion in construction activity since 2015 and $1 billion in investment in research and development annually.
Yet mere blocks away, 31 percent of West Philadelphians live below the poverty level, with 45 percent of households earning less than $25,000 a year. The region also has an unemployment rate much higher than the city average.
“Every year, we celebrate more and more jobs being created by our partners, but at the same time, we have tremendous levels of poverty abutting this district,” says Alissa Weiss, UCD’s director of strategic initiatives and communications. “We made the decision to leverage our relationships with our partners to help put people to work, and also to provide our partners with the talent they’re looking for.”
Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president of Penn and chairman of the UCD board, says the idea for the WPSI came from Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and founding director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Penn was previously a partner in the West Philadelphia Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization that consisted of a coalition of area community organizations and institutions. One of the core aspects of the Partnership involved job training and skills development for local residents.
After operating for several decades, the Partnership came to an end around 2006, and Harkavy approached Carnaroli about finding a way to continue the job training and skills development facets of the program through UCD.
“It needed to continue because this is something that is an important need in terms of economic development, in terms of working with the population in the community,” Harkavy says. “It was also very important to the institutions themselves. It provides them with workers they need, loyal, active personnel who are from the community, and who are going to be important contributors to the institutions and their growth.
“Mostly, it’s very important to the people themselves,” he adds, “and that people have jobs, and can earn a living, and can live decent lives. It helps to create a healthier environment and healthier relationships, and it is very significant in terms of the future of West Philadelphia, the future of Penn, and the future of the community.”
Carnaroli says he was intrigued by Harkavy’s vision of creating an employer-driven partnership.
“In other words, you don’t train people in general,” Carnaroli says. “What you do is you go to employers and say, ‘What jobs are you having a challenging time filling?’ and we work with local residents who are interested in those jobs so they can compete more effectively for those jobs.”
Harkavy says the employer-driven aspect of the program is key.
“The idea is to connect the needs of the employer to a training program and to the individuals who are being trained,” he says. “You can train people for something, but if there are no jobs, that’s not useful for anyone.”
Carnaroli discussed the idea with Matt Bergheiser, then the executive director of UCD and now its president, and asked him to evaluate its feasibility. Bergheiser assembled a team, identified funding, hired Sheila Ireland to run the program, and they recruited the first class.
The WPSI is open to unemployed West Philadelphians with at least a high school diploma or GED who live in the 19104, 19131, 19139, 19143, or 19151 zip codes.
Interested residents must submit an application, which is available in print and online, and list their work history and also answer a freeform question about why they are interested in being a part of the program.
“You hear again and again, ‘I live in the shadow of Penn; I’ve always wanted to work at Penn; I’ve always wanted to work at CHOP. I never knew how. I was scared to even try. I didn’t know the first thing about the first door to open,’” says Weiss.
WPSI staff selects the best candidates for an interview.
“A lot of participants have bounced around, working in jobs that don’t take advantage of their potential,” Weiss says. On average, participants have been unemployed for a year.
Class sizes depend on the number of open slots an employer-partner has available. If there are 15 open slots, then the class size is 15. The average class size is between 15 and 18 participants.
For certain cohorts, the WPSI receives hundreds of applicants. Program Manager Cait Garozzo says the most recent recruitment period had almost 400 applicants.
Training, with a foundation in the soft skills, takes place from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and can last from four to 26 weeks for positions that require intensive, on-the-job training. Participants are given a stipend during their training.
Internal WPSI experts instruct participants, and the program also features external vendors who are leading figures in their fields to explain specific concepts.
In addition to classroom work, all participants receive weekly evaluations and feedback, and one-on-one coaching sessions.
“While every cohort is slightly different, they all focus on the main skills of how to job hunt effectively, and how to create a level of self-possession and self-awareness that will make you successful no matter what job you get into,” Garozzo says, “whether it’s with our employer-partner or somewhere else.”
Weiss says one of the ways they help participants prepare for the job interviews is through mock interviews. Mark Mills, executive director of Purchasing Services in Penn’s Business Services Division, and Colleen Reardon, director of strategic sourcing and sustainability at Purchasing Services, have volunteered their time to work with participants.
“It’s a wonderful service to provide,” Weiss says. “I think that’s wonderful because those departments aren’t necessarily hiring from our cohorts, but they’re giving back in the way that they can, so we really appreciate that support.”
Employer-partners are invited to the classroom to present a workshop called “What Employers Want,” where they lay out exactly what the position is, how to be successful in the position, and field questions from participants.
“We’re really demystifying the whole job search process for both sides, and really getting people to connect in a real way,” Garozzo says. “That turns into super high-quality candidates and very happy employer-partners.”
Graduates of the program are not guaranteed a job, but they are guaranteed an interview.
WPSI alumni have gone on to work as laboratory assistants, security guards, safety ambassadors, patient sitters at CHOP, patient clerks at CHOP, dental assistants, medical assistants, unit clerks, and preschool teachers.
Participants who do not get hired continue to receive support from WPSI staff, including information about other job opportunities that arise and continued coaching.
Since the WPSI’s founding, 785 individuals have gone through its job training, internships, and workshops, and $15.4 million in wages have been generated for previously unemployed West Philadelphians.
Last year, 132 West Philly residents were served and 93 percent of graduates were connected to employment, with an average starting wage of $13.57 an hour.
In order to diversify the participants and attract more men, the UCD has piloted carpentry and landscaping programs.
The landscaping pilot has grown into Green City Works, a nonprofit landscaping social venture that provides building maintenance services in University City. The enterprise, which has 25 clients, 14 full-time staff members, and nearly $1 million in revenue, provides UCD with the opportunity to train and serve those with the highest barriers to employment, including the formerly incarcerated.
Carnaroli says the WPSI is beneficial to UCD and Penn in many ways, and enables the University to diversify its workforce, attract local talent to work in hard-to-fill jobs, connect local employers with talent, demonstrate local impact, and connect local residents to employment opportunities and full-time positions with benefits.
“If we don’t have people to work in our labs, then our faculty can’t do their research,” he says. “These jobs are mission critical to what we do as a university.
“And I think if we want to get at some of the bigger challenges around poverty in Philadelphia, those are all about jobs,” he adds. “When you look at some of the people we’re helping, some of them have been unemployed for 21 months. People get in situations that are out of their control. This is not a charity thing, but we’re helping people get back on track. These are very good, motivated people.”
Bianca Outlaw, 29, is a lab animal assistant at University Laboratory Animal Resources, a part of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. From the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia, she has worked at Penn since the fall of 2016.
She heard about the WPSI from a friend, and decided to apply.
“Who doesn’t want to work at the University of Penn?” she says.
Outlaw says in addition to helping her build her resume and prepare for interviews, the WPSI training process taught her a lot about herself.
“I was really shy and they helped with building confidence,” she says. “I doubt myself a lot and I had to learn that I need to be more confident in my decisions, and that I’m better than I thought I was.”
She says the WPSI allows participants to show their value as employees and helps them have a voice.
“There is a lot of talent in West Philly, and with Penn being so close in West Philadelphia, I think the program helps a lot,” she says. “Having that pipeline and having that kind of access for those in West Philadelphia is amazing.”