REPORT: Anchoring in people and places: An innovative model for workforce development in the U.S.

In the U.S. today, the key to success and economic mobility isn’t simply getting a job – it’s getting a good job, with a path to professional development, promotions, and rising wages. Unfortunately for many, those jobs have been getting harder to find. Access to good work is influenced by the quality and accessibility of the pathways that job seekers have to develop skills and form relationships with employers.

Many barriers, however, prevent employers and jobseekers from understanding and meeting each other’s needs. Traditional public workforce development models were not designed to adapt to a rapidly changing labor market and have rigid operational and reporting requirements that deter innovation and fruitful partnerships. At the same time, nearly all local public investments in employers go to capital development or tax breaks, while employers focus their training resources on mid-to-upper-level employees and are leery of recruiting in untested labor pools. Few mediating institutions have been able to effectively build bridges between the unemployed population and employers.

“We saw that there were social services in West Philadelphia for everything but putting people to work. There was an opportunity to build a system that helps employers improve their HR practice and prepares people to enter professional employment.”

Sheila Ireland, Director of Workforce Development of Philadelphia and former Director of WPSI

Today, we are pleased to present a case study on the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI). By working with anchor employers to understand their labor needs and nurturing the necessary skills already present in the community, the WPSI connects 95% of the formerly unemployed residents who graduate the program with good jobs that begin lifelong careers.

The Challenge

 “We wanted to create a proactive, individualized program that matches people to good jobs for them, not responding to everyone who comes through the door with prescribed services.”

Patrick Bayer, Manager of Continuous Improvement, WPSI

Public and private workforce development systems are the foundations of a functional, inclusive economy- helping jobseekers develop the in-demand skills that allow businesses to thrive and people to flourish. In spite of this, systemic issues prevent the creation of effective models that serve both groups well. These issues include:

  • Difficulty navigating the system: Jobseekers rarely fully understand or utilize the tools available to them, resulting in bouncing between ineffective programs with little guidance. Staff caseloads are often too high to serve job seekers effectively.
  • Undervaluing foundational skills: Traditional program graduates lack training in “soft” or “foundational” skills like conflict management and accepting feedback. According to a recent study, nearly 90% of new hire failures are due to poor foundational skills, not technical deficits.
  • Inefficient hiring processes: Employers struggled to adapt their hiring and retention processes for diverse candidate pools in a shifting talent landscape. Around 40% of U.S. companies have outsourced their hiring processes, often subcontracting to companies far away from their operations.

To address these issues, local authorities and employers are trying new ways to better deliver impactful training and place graduates in jobs. Many local innovative workforce development initiatives are appearing throughout the U.S., but there is little consensus on how to operate cost-efficient and effective programs.

“Every cohort focuses first on what many call ‘soft skills,’ but at WPSI, we prefer to say ‘foundational’ because they are the basis of any career. Technical skills get you a job, and foundational skills allow you to keep it.”

Sarah Steltz, Vice President of Workforce Solutions, WPSI

Disrupting the Model

The Centre for Public Impact (CPI) has been exploring radically different ways to increase economic mobility and enable all residents to flourish. Given our rapidly changing economy, growing economic inequality within cities, and increasing urban population, innovative and adaptable workforce development models are becoming increasingly important.

CPI teamed up with Drexel University’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab to take a deep dive into a promising workforce model in Philadelphia and explore how it could be adapted for different cities across the U.S. The WPSI model combines the economic might of anchor institutions, the readiness of the unemployed residents to connect to high-quality employers, and the local knowledge and relationships of the trusted intermediary to create a program that places 95% of graduates into good jobs.

As a critical intermediary, WPSI reimagined the status quo of traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ programs. Instead, it connects unemployed residents to effective training in foundational and technical skills needed for in-demand positions with the anchor employers that represent over half of the community’s 80,000 jobs. This geographic focus enables WPSI to cultivate candidates that meet the unique needs of local employers and to help jobseekers navigate the transition to employment. Unlike traditional workforce development organizations, WPSI provides training only to the number of participants its employer partners are able to hire. WPSI has proven to be extremely successful in the area, accomplishing:

  • Increased local labor participation for previously excluded workers: 530 WPSI graduates have been placed in local jobs since 2011
  • High success rates for program graduates: 97% of 2019 graduates secured full-time employment or positions with a promotion path to full time, exceeding the last reported public system placement rates by 29%
  • Lasting diversity and inclusion in workspaces: 97.6% of WPSI participants come from minority groups; employers report WPSI hires turn over up to 50% less than other workers
  • Regional economic growth: WPSI graduates experience a 25% increase in wages over their previous positions before unemployment, which has generated $37 million in wages and increased disposable income and tax revenue

 “The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative has changed my life. When I came here, I knew I had the skills to land a job, but working closely with the staff, they brought out my potential to build a future career and to pull out my best self.”

Tyler Wood, Brightview, Landscape Technician, March 2019

Where we go from here

Today, access to good jobs is not equitable; but a city’s economic growth depends on the ability of all its residents to access good jobs in their neighborhoods. Organizations and intermediaries like WPSI can provide communities with a framework for inclusive economic growth. They can foster collaboration across different stakeholders—such as businesses, philanthropists, universities, hospitals, governments, and residents—and create a common vision for their communities. Looking beyond West Philadelphia, this case study highlights key learnings that can be adopted by workforce development institutions in other cities, especially those looking to leverage Opportunity Zones to attract new investments in equitable growth. 

If you’re interested in further exploring this model or joining the conversation about how innovative partnerships can create inclusive economic growth, get in touch with Kevval Hanna and the CPI Economic Mobility team.