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Innovation & Job News

Green City Works expands employment opportunities in University City

Green City Works

Green City Works at The Porch

A landscaped median on University Avenue

The Market Street Bridge gets a makeover

So how will University City District (UCD) transform $300,000 into sustainable, career-launching jobs in a traditionally tough business? Last week, we spoke with Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) leaders Hoa Pham and Jennie Sparandara about the Win Win Challenge grant UCD received this winter, following a $50,000 planning grant award in 2015.

The grant-winning Green City Works (GCW) program grew out of the organization’s existing West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI), which has been connecting long-time unemployed West Philadelphians with job opportunities at major local institutional partners for over five years.

"We were looking at partnerships that would allow us to broaden our demographic base," explains Sheila Ireland, vice president of workforce innovations at UCD, noting that WPSI cohorts tend to skew toward African-American women ages 25 to 35, with jobs in healthcare or educational institutions.  

The idea for GCW was born when Valley Crest landscaping approached UCD about recruiting landscaping technicians from the West Philly area. For an organization already managing up to $400,000 of work in green spaces within its district (think The Porch at 30th Street), a jobs program geared toward landscaping seemed like a natural fit, as well as an opportunity to broaden its programs into a male-dominated industry.

When Sparandara approached UCD about applying for the planning grant, "We said, 'Here is the opportunity for us to not just work on greenspace projects…[but] to do a social venture as well," recalls Ireland. The program targets applicants struggling with challenges such as longterm unemployment or re-entry from the criminal justice system, and helps them build transferrable job skills. "We used that Win Win Challenge planning grant period to prove a couple things: Could we build this program? Could we take on fee-for-service contracts? How would we incorporate?”

The experiment was successful, even in an industry as difficult as landscaping. Though wages in the field are slightly higher than standard minimum wage, the hours can go from dawn to dusk six days a week in the growing season, with workers laid off in the winter. In other words, not a ton of stability. And with many companies recruiting workers on H2B visas, local job-seekers often don't look at the industry for entry level positions.

"Can we change the way the industry looks at workers?" asks Ireland. At GCW, that means peer mentoring and support, a livable wage ($13 an hour to start, versus an industry average of $9), work hours from 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and pay regardless of rainy days that delay the work.

That $300,000 in seed money from JOIN has allowed GCW to hire general manager Brian English and bring in its latest cohort: 12 workers who began a 26-week program on March 28. Those who finish the program stand an excellent chance of joining the GCW staff.

Ireland says the program is important because it honors a range of skills -- GCW’s staffers are people who are happy outdoors and who love community beautification.

"When you activate people’s talents, you really speak to what they should be doing in their lives," she enthuses. "And you can change people’s lives by doing that."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Sheila Ireland, University City District 

The Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) has partnered with Flying Kite to explore how good jobs are created and filled in Greater Philadelphia. Stay tuned as we follow the progress of these exciting grants and track the city's continued workforce development challenges.

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