West Philadelphia Skills Initiative

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Key strategies employed

  • Focus on jobs with clear career pathways
  • Work with network of multiple employers
  • Involve hiring managers in the training process
  • Partner with a workforce intermediary
  • Utilize a cohort training model focused on specific positions
  • Designate a geographic focus in high-poverty neighborhoods


  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Drexel University
  • Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Total employees


Mission of Program

“To connect West Philadelphia employers seeking talent to West Philadelphians seeking opportunity, to build local workforce capacity, and to support people in realizing their full economic potential.”


The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a workforce intermediary that utilizes an “employer-driven, jobs-first model,” and develops training programs that connect community residents to high-need and high-turnover jobs. The geographic focus of the WPSI covers five zip codes in a district with about 240,000 people. This area is also where there is a high concentration of jobs. In the eastern end of the district, there are 75,000 jobs in a 2.4 square mile area. WPSI aims to leverage this job density by connecting local residents to existing open jobs and providing tailored training so that residents have the necessary skills to get these jobs. At the same time, WPSI provides key services to employers by reducing recruiting time, improving the quality of applicants, and increasing employee retention.


Launched in 2010, WPSI works with employers to connect residents to jobs at local anchor institutions. WPSI is a program of University City District (UCD), a partnership organization focused on community revitalization in West Philadelphia. UCD was founded in the 1990’s in response to an unprecedented crime wave, with the initial mission of supplementing city services. This is still a major focus of the organization, but there has been increasing emphasis on economic development. Much of UCD’s board was composed of leadership from the city’s major employers, which sparked thinking about how they could better leverage their hiring practices to support the work of UCD. This was the impetus for the development of the WPSI.

West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort training
West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort training

Program set-up

WPSI works with employers to develop tailored trainings for specific positions that they will soon be hiring for and handles all of the recruitment, admissions, and selection for each training program. Trainings vary in duration and scope based on the particular position and the needs of the hiring institution. Participants in WPSI are selected through an application process, and applicants must have a high school diploma or GED equivalent to be eligible.

WPSI hosts information sessions to familiarize applicants with the program requirements, admissions process, and to introduce them to the employer. Up to one hundred people attend each information session and apply to the program. There is only space for fifteen cohort members in each program, and candidates go through initial screenings as well as in-person interviews, making the admissions process highly competitive.

Each WPSI training module is developed based on the specific skillset required for the position of focus. The job-training component is integrated with education on the hiring institution’s culture, along with soft skill development more generally. Participants are assessed and evaluated throughout the programs and have multiple opportunities to interact with hiring managers from the hiring institution. To help enable participation, cohort members are paid during the training.

While there is no formal obligation for participating institutions to hire graduates from the program—only the requirement that the positions being trained for have vacancies—acceptance rates for program graduates are high. One key benefit WPSI offers employers is they can provide detailed evaluation data on the participant from throughout the training. In reference to the hiring process, Sheila Ireland, vice president of workforce solutions at UCD explained that by the end of the longer training programs hiring staff has developed a relationship with each candidate, at which point they are “supposed to be effective members of your staff by your own accord, and you have the vacancies. That’s what the 95 percent placement rate is about.”

Staffing and budget

The 2015 budget of WPSI was $774,000. There are four full-time employees on staff, and trainers are contract employees. 


To date, the initiative has evolved primarily on philanthropic funds. While employers on the board make contributions to UCD, they did not make direct contributions to WPSI until fiscal year 2016, when $60,000 of direct funding began. Additional philanthropic funders include the Pew Charitable Trust, the Job Opportunity Investment Network, LISC Philadelphia, and many of the major banks in Philadelphia. A key source of initial funding support was a one time planning grant. For WPSI training programs with job shadowing components, employers will pay the wages of trainees during their work hours and WPSI will pay the stipends awarded on off-site training days.

Key strategies employed

Focus on jobs with clear career pathways

One of the requirements WPSI has set for training programs is that they must be for jobs that are full time, with benefits, and connected to a career ladder. “If you are trying to build a quality program, you need a quality job,” highlights Ireland. The training is an intense investment for students, so it is essential to have a career ladder that motivates them to commit to the program.

West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort training
West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort training


Work with network of multiple employers

An essential component of WPSI’s success is that the program encourages participants to connect to multiple employers and find the field that best fits their skills. As Ireland describes it: “My mantra is [that] I’m providing the employer with the best employee fit and also my participants are supposed to be making the decision about whether this is the employer for them…Yes, we build programs for an employer partner, but that job is a safety net for my participants. Over the course of the program, we find out where they’re supposed to be, where their talents really lie, and we connect them to that.”

Utilize a cohort training model targeted at specific positions

WPSI works with employers to develop cohort models that best address job needs and context. The cohorts vary—in both duration and skill focus—and are tailored based on the preferences of the hiring institution. This helps employers address pressing workforce challenges. For example, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia created a new position that would interface between patients and clinic staff and help each group navigate specific situations. It was important that these employees had both interpersonal skills to interface with families and patients and a deep knowledge of the institution. After the hospital had difficulty finding candidates, WPSI developed a four-week intensive training program that emphasized emotional intelligence and prepared candidates for a rapid orientation and entry process.

West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort training
West Philadelphia Skills Initiative cohort training

Another example of the tailored cohort approach is with Drexel University’s College of Medicine Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Pipeline Program. A primary issue for Drexel was a high turnover rate in this position. To address this, WPSI developed a custom curriculum focused on facilitating retention by providing extensive and gradual on boarding. Specifically, participants transition from developing soft skills early in the program to completing on-site training in later phases. Lasting six months and requiring thirty-five hours per week from participants, the training incorporates targeted attrition and wage increases. Participants learn proprietary information technology systems and other institution-specific skills directly from Drexel faculty and staff. They also receive personal coaching after hire to help facilitate retention.  A particularly notable component of this program is a split wage model. WPSI pays for wages during training and Drexel pays for the wages during on-site clinical work. Throughout the training, the overall wage increases so that candidates receive the starting CMA wage once they complete the program and are formally hired.

  • Phase 1:  $9.00 per hour: 100 percent training time
  • Phase 2:  $11 per hour:  40 percent training time, 60 percent clinical time
  • Phase 3:  $13 per hour:  20 percent training time, 80 percent clinical time
  • Phase 4:  $14 per hour: 5 percent training time, 95 percent clinical time
  • Program graduates begin with a starting wage at Drexel of $14.25

Involve hiring managers in the training process

Part of the success of Drexel’s CMA training program is the involvement of hiring managers. As the program progresses, participants transition to on-site clinical training. This component is managed differently than the other training portion, with Drexel paying the wages of participants. This not only contributes to the financial sustainability of the program, but it connects the departmental managers who will be hiring candidates. Managers get to know candidates and become knowledgeable about their skillsets and work style. Although candidates still have to apply for the open CMA positions, this familiarity can be a huge asset. In other WPSI programs, managers from hiring institutions conduct mock interviews and “speed dating” interviews with candidates; these events are set up so that candidates can interface with departmental managers and managers can get to know participants.


WPSI broadly:

  • 124 employees placed
  • Participant average wage increases of 32 percent, from $10.28/hour to $13.58/hour
  • 5 percent of graduates find jobs within weeks of finishing the WPSI program
  • 4 percent are still on the job three months later

Drexel Medical Assistant Pipeline Program:

  • 92 percent retention rate for pipeline program participants
  • Over two years, Drexel’s CMA turnover rate dropped from 28 percent to 16 percent
  • Calculated $526,260 in savings, including wages and training costs
  • During six months of training and onboarding, wages only cost the employer $6.05/hr, but regular wages are, on average, $13/hr

Specific positions graduates are hired into: 

  • Certified medical assistant
  • Patient sitter
  • In-patient clerk
  • Desktop information technology support
  • Field information technology support
  • Security officers
  • Landscapers
  • Lab technicians
  • Bike ambassadors
  • Valet attendants

Another side of WPSI’s manager engagement is that managers themselves receive training. For instance, WPSI teaches a course to managers at Drexel called Class Consciousness. The curriculum focuses on the fact that management often comes from a different class background than new hires and outlines the differences in norms that may arise. This equips managers to create an environment that is more inclusive and supportive for new hires, which in turn improves retention.

Partner with a workforce intermediary

WPSI has positioned itself as a service provider to employers, emphasizing the benefits their programming can bring to the table. This incentivizes employers to partner with the intermediary.  In general, external hiring holds an inherent risk that a hiring manager, making decisions based on limited information, will select candidates that are not a good fit for a position. Workforce intermediaries can reduce the risk of hiring because they can invest more time and resources into selection than human resource and talent acquisition departments can. WPSI has a rigorous screening process and works to select candidates that will be a good fit for the open position. “It is about understanding a dual client focus and being an effective procurer and deliverer of services,” Ireland explains. Adding, “It is emphasizing these services that can bring departments on board: I think when you come into organizations and you try to play the charity card, you’re not going to get very far, because at the end of the day, an HR manager is going to be held accountable for every bad hire that comes into an organization.”

In addition to screening and sorting, WPSI is able to bring an outside perspective to the work, which allows them to develop curriculum to address specific institutional issues, such as high turnover. For example, in the development of Drexel’s CMA program, WPSI staff worked alongside the Drexel program manager to help the institution understand the retention problem by interviewing current managers and employees and examining turnover and exit interview data. Another advantage WPSI offers is additional data about an applicant’s performance. During the trainings, trainers conduct skills assessments and performance evaluations, which can then be passed on to hiring managers. Ireland describes this advantage in more detail: “unlike some employers, I’m their assessment arm. I can assess reliability through a formal instrument, and then I can assess reliability every day trainees show up.”

Designate a geographic focus in high-poverty neighborhoods

In West Philadelphia, 31 percent of residents are living below the poverty line and unemployment is at 15 percent, a higher rate than the city average of 11 percent. By focusing on particular neighborhoods, WPSI is able to connect residents who experience un- and underemployment at the greatest rates with job opportunities, which in turn ties into other efforts to grow the local economy. For instance, the zip codes targeted in Drexel’s CMA training program are the same neighborhoods targeted in Drexel’s other neighborhood initiatives, such as a home purchase assistance program and local purchasing initiatives. This alignment can help bolster neighborhood investment across different program areas.

For more information


For additional tools and templates, see More Resources


Sheila Ireland
Vice President, Workforce Solutions
University City District
Phone: 215-243-0555, ext. 228
Email: sheila@universitycity.org


Sheila Ireland, interview by David Zuckerman and Katie Parker, March 30, 2016, transcript.

University City District, “West Philadelphia Skills Initiative Impact Report,” Philadelphia, PA. 2014, issuu.com/universitycity/docs/wpsi_impact_report_2014/1?e=4547788/8694264

“Drexel Economic Inclusion,” Presentation, November 16, 2015. Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA.

University City District, “About,” West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, website accessed April 2016, www.universitycity.org/wpsi



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