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Roadmap for Growth: Guest Commentary – Matt Bergheiser

Posted Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Advocacy, Roadmap

The Roadmap for Growth is a multi-year initiative of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to engage Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council in a shared agenda to promote economic growth and job creation in the City of Philadelphia.


Guest Commentator:  Matt Bergheiser, Executive Director, University City District

What are new innovations that can promote prosperity and economic opportunity for every Philadelphian?

Too often, economic growth and economic opportunity are dichotomous concepts, owned by disparate municipal departments, discussed in different professional circles and governed by disconnected policies and incentives. The result is a Philadelphia that exists on two very different planes. On one hand, the city’s dynamism has attracted millennials at the fastest growth rate of any of the nation’s 30 largest cities. On the other, we are in some ways still defined by the highest poverty rate among the country’s biggest municipalities.

Across Philadelphia, there are examples of how we might leverage the opportunities of growth to address the problems of poverty. In University City, for instance, we have 76,000 jobs and $5 billion in recent real estate investment. Yet in the five neighboring zip codes, 81,000 people live in poverty. Five years ago, University City District (UCD) and our anchor institution partners set out to change this. We created the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative to connect unemployed residents seeking opportunity with major employers seeking talent. Our approach involves deep collaboration with employers to identify their needs, recruit prospective hires, create skill-building curricula, and develop regular interactions between job candidates and hiring managers.

We’ve placed 91% of Skills Initiative graduates in career-transforming jobs— lab technicians, desktop support professionals, medical assistants — with an average starting wage of $13.60 an hour. We’ve now paid $7.5 million in salaries to participants who had been unemployed an average of 366 days before coming through our doors. This work is life-changing, but it’s not charity. We’re solving real business needs by stemming entry-level turnover; enhancing quality of care; and building long-term skills that enable advancement.

Now, as Penn, Drexel, the Science Center, Brandywine Realty Trust, CHOP and others embark on development plans that will redefine the ambition of the city, inclusion and equity are intrinsic to their nascent vision. With $5 billion in construction activity to come, how do we connect the disconnected to opportunities in the building trades? And with $1 billion in annual collective purchasing power, how can locally-directed procurement facilitate job growth in our most fragile communities?

To answer these questions, there can be a Skills Initiative of sorts in every Philadelphia neighborhood, connected to the needs of businesses on commercial corridors down the street or in major employment hubs a transit ride away. City officials can facilitate these partnerships by encouraging the importance of workforce development as they engage with businesses; directing public job training resources to employer-driven collaboratives; and, more generally, ensuring an interconnected civic dialogue about growth and inclusion. The key, as a city, is to be intentional about creating what we at UCD refer to as a 21st-century opportunity infrastructure. Only by doing so can we leverage places of prosperity in Philadelphia to make the middle-class dream a reality for those of our citizens mired in poverty.


Discuss these and other Questions for the Roadmap at the upcoming policy forum: Expanding Neighborhood Economies on Thursday, April 28, 2016.


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