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Kenney's ambitious workforce plan to tackle blue-collar skills gap

By Juliana Feliciano Reyes

As cities across the country show off how attractive they are to millennials in a mad dash to lure Amazon’s second headquarters, Mayor Kenney took a pause from the high-tech fanfare to announce to the city’s business community an ambitious strategy to train and connect Philadelphians to blue-collar jobs.

Think: apprenticeships, job training, and adult literacy education, all with a focus on marginalized populations, including those living in poverty but also, notably, immigrants and “returning citizens,” or the formerly incarcerated.

“This is a moment to forge an inclusive path to prosperity,” Drexel president John Fry said at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s annual mayoral luncheon Tuesday before introducing Kenney. Fry added that Kenney was setting a “high-bar for the business community” by encouraging employers to invest in building a pipeline of skilled Philadelphia workers.

The plan, named “Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine,” is the result of an 18-month effort by a 40-member workforce steering committee heavily comprising representatives from the education and workforce training sector.

Gov. Wolf announced a similar, $50 million workforce development effort at his budget address Tuesday, one that proposes spending half the project budget to teach science, technology, engineering and math skills at “all levels.” (Kenney announced a local initiative to do the same in December.)

After walking on the stage to the “Rocky” theme song and greeting the packed Marriott Grand Ballroom, much to the crowd’s pleasure, with a “Yo. How youse doin’?” Kenney did speak of Amazon HQ2 but spent more time talking about his administration’s public education efforts, garnering applause for gaining back local control of the school district. He presented the workforce development strategy as part of his focus on reducing poverty through education.

“We continue to be the poorest of America’s 10 largest cities, with far too many residents lacking the skills and networks needed to compete for jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage,” he said. “This is not a new problem. But it is one that we can no longer afford to ignore.”

The effort already has $9 million committed annually for workforce training and education, mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Cox said, with contributions from the city ($3.75 million), Philadelphia Works, Community College of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Youth Network. The hope is to get that number to $13 million annually by 2020.

The plan is part of an early but growing trend on the part of city and state governments to tackle what is known as the skills gap, or the mismatch between the talent that employers so desperately need and the skills the workforce currently has, especially for “middle-skills” jobs, which require some level of education or training but not a four-year bachelor’s degree.

A consequence of a job market that continues to be decimated by automation, the over-emphasis on four-year college educations and the millions of manufacturing jobs lost since the 2008 recession, the issue has affected industries across the board, from the high-tech startup sector to the manufacturing industry.

“We’re all dying here,” said Frank Cettina, vice president of operations for electronic manufacturer Computer Components Corp., on the topic of his industry’s rampant hiring hardships. He was attending a meeting recently for the hiring-focused regional manufacturing partnership he co-chairs through Philadelphia Works.

Ten to 15 years ago, his challenge was training current employees in new skills. The challenge these days, Cettina said in an interview, is finding people worth hiring and training — people who will stay with the company and grow.

Kenney’s workforce committee plan, which sets out a number of specific goals to reach by 2020, is eyeing the 131,000 middle-skills jobs across seven sectors in Philadelphia, including health care, retail and hospitality and business and financial services. The 40-member steering committee includes four private-sector, for-profit reps, two of which were from banks Wells Fargo and Bank of America; the rest are mainly education and workforce development agencies.

“We are certainly eager to engage more members of the private sector,” Cox said.

(The committee also includes the two candidates eyeing U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s congressional seat: Kenney’s deputy mayor for labor Richie Lazer, who is expected to announce his candidacy, and Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center’s executive director, Kevin R. Johnson.)

Another part of the plan is to build out an Office of Workforce Development, which has its roots in the Commerce Department’s five-members Talent Development Unit that Kenney created when he entered office on the recommendation of his transition team. The administration is in the final stages of negotiation for that hire, who will be the main point person for the strategy, Cox said.

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