Mayor Kenney’s plan to attack poverty through better schools and with the city’s new workforce strategy is the right thing to do. There’s no doubt that we need to educate and train a workforce that makes Philadelphia a location of choice for new business and investment.
But let’s keep our eyes on the prize: For people of color in Philadelphia to close the gaps in income and wealth, we need to focus on careers — not just jobs.
For decades, the mantra has been that education is the ladder up and out of poverty. But education alone isn’t enough. A recent Brookings Institution study reports that there “has been a significant increase in the rate of four-year college completion among black Americans, especially women. … But even when they do, they are less able to create greater economic security.”
In 2015, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 12.4 percent of black college grads between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed, compared with a 5.6 percent unemployment rate for all college grads in that age bracket. “That black college graduates of all ages consistently have higher unemployment rates, higher underemployment rates, and lower wages than their white counterparts, even when black students complete STEM majors, reinforces concerns that racial discrimination remains an important factor in contemporary labor markets,” the report concludes.
For too many of us, there is a “disconnect” between getting a diploma and launching a productive career in Philadelphia. So, we need to expand the mayor’s strategy by building sustainable career paths for people of color.
Careers, not just jobs: Opportunities that allow people to write their own next chapter of the American Dream.
Here’s how we do it: First, we need the region’s business community to “activate” on this issue. Where companies claim they can’t find qualified applicants among people of color, there is a solution: Cast a wider net in your hiring search. Instead of the traditional approach of hiring from your own network, reach out to new contacts, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where the next generation of the “best and the brightest” are ready for the chance at meaningful careers. There are dozens of HBCUs, including Lincoln University here and institutions like Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., whose new president is longtime Philadelphian Clarence “Clay” Armbrister, formerly president of Girard College. Others include the renowned Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta, and Howard University in Washington.
Other possible avenues to attract a more diverse hiring pool: Community College of Philadelphia, where 2018 Rhodes Scholar Hazim Hardeman began his academic career.
There’s no shortage of ways to help businesses cast a wider net. But the key is to recognize the problem and broaden the hiring pool.
Equally important is making a commitment to mentor and train young people so that they have a real chance to succeed in the working world.
It starts by creating a welcoming and supportive environment. For many people of color, including those with college degrees, the career track can feel like a rigged game; that is, a place where everyone else (mostly white) knows the rules and too few are willing to share that knowledge. So, the challenge for employers who truly value diversity is to commit to easing barriers to workplace success and giving new hires a realistic opportunity to succeed.
At EducationWorks, we see the value of time investment every day. In PowerCorpsPHL, our program in partnership with the city, young people like Aaron Kirkland have the chance to turn their lives around. Aaron, who spent five years in prison, today is on a career path in the city’s Water Department, thanks to the skills and support he learned on the job at PowerCorpsPHL. Having attained the highest score on the city’s civil service test for his position (two other PowerCorpsPHL alums finished second and third, respectively), Aaron also is attending classes at CCP, is newly married, a new father, and a new homeowner. He is on the path to a productive career, and it started with a simple investment of time in his future.
There are thousands of bright, talented people who seek only the chance to work hard and succeed.
So, let’s support the mayor’s workforce strategy, but while we’re at it, let’s set our sights higher and commit to creating sustainable career paths that provide a way for talented people to build a meaningful future for themselves and their families.
Miles Wilson is president and CEO of EducationWorks. firstname.lastname@example.org