Philly’s coronavirus response

Opinion: 5 ways Philly leaders can work toward equitable workforce recovery

As we move from the COVID-19 crisis to the resilience that will follow, let’s make sure everyone’s on board.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Some deeply troubling statistics are emerging surrounding the coronavirus and its disparate effects. In the Philly region and around the country, infection and death rates appear disproportionately higher in Black communities.

This information is not surprising — nor difficult to explain. A pandemic on this scale was always poised to amplify inequalities that already exist in the U.S., many of which are built upon systemic racial oppression. This health crisis illuminates who has the luxury to stay home, which jobs are truly “essential,” and who has access to safety nets, whether on and off the job.

As a workforce development researcher, I am certain about one thing: like the emerging health disparities, the workforce fallout from COVID-19 will be staggeringly divided along racial lines. As we envision the end of the most intense crisis, and pivot toward recovery and getting people back to work, we need to focus on these very important questions:

  • How great will be the adverse impact on Philadelphia’s communities of color?
  • How can we as a city and region best prepare to ease this burden?

The need to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to create a stronger and more equitable Philadelphia. We should not waste it.

What does it even mean for a community to bear the brunt of the workforce fallout of COVID-19?  Research the Economy League did for the Lenfest North Philadelphia Workforce Initiative (LNPWI) and Philadelphia Works provides some bare stats.

North Philadelphia is currently one of the most racially diverse sections of the city: 48.5% of North Philly residents are Black, 34.8% are white, 3.5% Asian, 10% identify as other, and 2.6% represent two or more races. There’s ethnic diversity as well, with nearly a third of the population having Hispanic or Latinx backgrounds. Even before the pandemic, two-fifths of North Philadelphia’s nearly 275,000 residents lived below the poverty line. And the 116,000 North Philadelphians in the labor force earn a median annual wage of just $25,000.

Many of those lower-income workers have been drafted directly to the front lines of the crisis, where they carry the highest risk of infection. About 19% of North Philadelphia residents work in healthcare and social assistance, per our analysis. That’s roughly 22,500 individuals working in hospitals or as home healthcare aides with the elderly or infirm. Other North Philadelphians work in industries with the highest risk of layoffs, like retail (12%) and accommodation and food services (9%). Both of these industries have been wholly upended during this crisis.

While these data points are specific to North Philly, the narrative is a snapshot of the reality for many communities across the city. Southwest, West Philadelphia, and parts of South Philly have very similar racial, ethnic, and workforce compositions.

As the conversation shifts from crisis to response, recovery and resilience, we need frameworks for how to help move the needle and connect more people to opportunity. By embracing the following principles, we can help get more people back to work:

1) Build collaborative infrastructure to share resources and information

With resources stretched thin, fostering collaboration among workforce providers and stakeholders will be more important than ever. Policymakers and leaders should think about creating “shared tables” for organizations that provide services. The bigger, more robust, and more collaborative these partnerships, the better we can connect more people to work.

2) Reconsider what basic needs are essential, and make them more accessible

This crisis has put spotlights on the importance of basic needs for the workforce, as well as the scope of gaps in service and who has access to them. Affordable and reliable transportation, digital literacy skills, access to the internet, childcare, benefits, and many other services have always been important. But as we rebuild, and as federal dollars come in for recovery, we need to make them more equitable. This will directly help more people find sustainable work.

3) Build a robust and inclusive community process

No one knows better what people in these communities need than those who live there. Elected officials, conveners and stakeholders have an opportunity to build a system that elevates traditionally overlooked voices — especially relevant now that our ability to gather in person is limited. We must be cognizant of the voices we are missing and build a feedback structure that is deeply inclusive.

4) Forge deep and collaborative employer engagement relationships

Few things are more effective in connecting people to work than employers being engaged in the training process for workforce development programs. As organizational priorities pivot, and employers need a workforce with new skills, this is a chance to create important partnerships that can help get more people to work.

5) Connect more people to sustainable careers

As employers rebuild, this is an opportunity to embrace modern, nontraditional skills and to create positions that have continued advancement opportunities, aka “career pathways.” This is also a chance for workforce development organizations to focus on connecting people to opportunities that have benefits, reliable schedules and pay a living wage.

Emerging from COVID-19 will be a long process, perhaps longer and more difficult than any of us can imagine. But knowing the scale of the challenges and developing a framework for reform and recovery built around these effective workforce principles can help us rebuild from this crisis.

There is a lot of uncertainty in everyone’s future, but If there’s one thing I am confident of, is the resiliency of Philadelphians. While this is a crisis, it is also an opportunity to emerge stronger, more resilient, and more equitable than before.