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JOIN(t) Action: Igniting innovation on education and job growth




JOIN's Jennie Sparandara

Network Lab

Hadass Sheffer


Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) director Jennie Sparandara says conferences often disappoint her. Either the panels don't delve deeply enough into their topics or speakers try to encompass too much without leaving space for follow-up. The best moments at any conference happen out in the hallway, when attendees meet, greet and connect between speeches.

"Tonight is our attempt to have a bunch of hallway conversations," explained Sparandara in her introduction to April 30's JOIN(t) Action "Ignite Talks," hosted by the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

Five speakers spent about ten minutes each tackling various angles of maximizing education and employment in the Philadelphia region, from retaining college students and helping adults complete their degrees, to community service, internships and apprenticeships.

Susan Bond of Delaware County Community College explained how speedy and targeted remediation for academically challenged students can connect to job training opportunities and lead to increases in the school's retention rates overall.

Catie Wolfgang from the Mayor's Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service also spoke. She's chief service officer at PowerCorpsPHL, an initiative that enrolls 136 highly-at-risk 18 to 26-year-olds in a six-month AmeriCorps program. Participants work on stormwater management projects, tree planting and revitalizing public land. Upon completion of their service terms, alumni receive intensive transition support, enhancing their chances for success in career-track employment, post-secondary education and/or national service.

Wolfgang spoke about the three components of a good program and how they connect to workforce readiness. 

First is attention to "rigorous high-quality service over an extended period of time," which includes a "strong team culture" that lets participants celebrate what they bring to the program while also fostering a safe space to air challenges. This translates into better personal resources for the real-world grind of the job hunt, when initial excitement can fade quickly.

The second component is high expectations -- around principles as simple as punctuality -- Wolfgang continued, and third, a commitment to consistent practice within the program, particularly for participants who face challenges such as negative pressures in their peer networks, childcare woes, food insecurity and the threat of homelessness.

When this comes together at PowerCorpsPHL, "no longer is your identity about what you can't do, but what you can do." And that positive shift is instrumental in workforce readiness.

Campus Philly's Jen Devor discussed the value of internships in Philly.

"A degree is not enough to get a job," she insisted. It's about internships, and "good internships are sticky."

Our city already sees a majority of its college students staying here after graduation (64 percent), but the completion of an internship boosts that number to 71 percent.

It's important for companies to invest in proper internships, she explained. That doesn't mean fetching coffee, endless busy-work, the responsibilities of a full-time job or the guarantee of a full-time job later, but that does mean quality on-the-job training. A well-planned internship has four parts, she continued: an accurate assessment of skills the company needs from an intern; clear, project-based goals; an understanding of the bigger picture in how the intern's work benefits the company; and weekly mentorship from an internship leader.

Since Campus Philly promotes a model of student learning that translates into more future workers, it really is an "economic development organization" in our region, Devor concluded.

Next, Susan Thomas of the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund explained the value of apprenticeships in workforce readiness. Despite traditional perceptions, apprenticeships aren't only for trades like construction. She focused on a new healthcare apprenticeship program with Philadelphia FIGHT, an organization providing primary care, education, research and advocacy for people living with or at high risk for HIV/AIDS.

An apprenticeship with District 1199C combines on-the-job training with classroom work that can translate into college credits, and a nationally-registered certification.

"People who are unemployed would rather learn on the job," said Thomas. Since late last year, Philadelphia FIGHT has launched three Registered Apprenticeships, which include a graduated pay-scale that begins below the market rate and rises as the worker gains core competencies (an "earn and learn model"), clear employer documentation of apprentices' progress, and high-quality training and supervision. Especially in the healthcare field, this readies a worker for a career with excellent growth potential.

Graduate! Network president Hadass Sheffer rounded out the talks. Her organization helps adults return to school and finish their college degrees.

At of a cost of $350 per year per "comebacker," 79 percent of Graduate! Philadelphia participants complete their degree within three years or are on track to graduate, versus the national average of a 43 percent graduation rate after six years for adults returning to school unaided by the program.

Sheffer also spoke about the benefits, challenges and questions involved when an organization like hers receives the potential support to scale up its model.

"There's innovation happening all the time," she insisted.
ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and Flying Kite's News Editor, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.
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