Workforce Development and Economic Innovation – Trends and Changes in the Landscape

Everywhere around us, within the last several years, we have seen the effects of Philadelphia’s success in growing its population, particularly among millennials and immigrants. The most recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia: The State of the City, A 2016 Update,” reaffirms additional growth in 2015. Various research reports utilizing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data have validated that Philadelphia’s millennial population is increasing the fastest among the 10 largest U.S. cities, adding 120,600 between 2006 and 2014, a surge of 41.2 percent. Foreign-born residents of Philadelphia increased to 13 percent, adding to a more diverse city, and growing a culturally rich mixture of neighborhoods. Unemployment is at 7 percent, the lowest in 8 years, according to this new report.

New office buildings, residential buildings, retail, hotels, academic buildings, innovation centers and research buildings surround us. We cannot get across the city without seeing a crane in the sky, a construction worker in the street or a sidewalk closed for construction. This physical transformation of Philadelphia shows us how vital human capital is to our economy. Once this news of Philadelphia’s resurgence expanded beyond the region, investors, businesses and individuals have been eager to capitalize on this wealth of talent.

Yet, underlying this good news, our city continues to be plagued by deep poverty, a lack of educational attainment and slow growth in jobs. A poverty rate of 26 percent is the highest among the nation’s biggest cities. Our job growth in 2015, while increasing, is about half the national rate; roughly 500,000 residents are estimated to have low literacy rates; and about 35,000 returning citizens are released to Philadelphia from local, state and federal prisons every year. What can be done to help solve some of these problems so that everyone can have a chance at prosperity? Just think about the impact to our economy if Philadelphia could begin to move the needle across its human capital population.

“Philadelphia has been transformed by demographic trends that have produced growing populations across much of urban America. The question is whether those trends are forming a foundation for real progress on the city’s most persistent challenges.” —The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia: The State of the City, A 2016 Update”

Sitting at the epicenter of these complex issues is Community College of Philadelphia, the city’s college, where individuals can seek greater educational attainment and career training, businesses can look for and help create a pipeline of skilled workers, and the College can provide clear pathways that take students from a certificate or vocational program into a career, or back into a credit-bearing certificate or associate’s degree. The newly created Division of Workforce and Economic Innovation is tasked with helping to do just that. As the College embarks on an ambitious plan to elevate the importance of its mission in workforce development and economic innovation, it is important to understand the context in which we are operating and the key issues that will shape our work as we try to push the boundaries, tackle more complex issues, and work to grow Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s Economy

Employment growth in Philadelphia has largely been concentrated in the education and medical/health care industries, primarily place-based, which allows for relative stability through economic highs and lows. Employment in health care grew throughout the recession and has continued in the recovery period. This sector comprises 31 percent of Philadelphia’s employment. Manufacturing comprises 3 percent of Philadelphia’s employment, but remains the city’s strongest industry where individuals without postsecondary degrees can earn family-sustaining wages. The city has begun to make up the jobs it lost in construction and manufacturing. The Federal Reserve’s Manufacturing Outlook Business Survey for March 2016 showed positive general activity for shipments, new orders and with firms reporting relative stability in employment. A recent business survey from PNC Financial Services indicates a continued shortage of workers with technical skills.

Business and financial services, dipping below 2007 levels, began to add back jobs in 2012. This sector comprises 21 percent of Philadelphia’s employment. Government is Philadelphia’s third largest industry, comprising 16 percent of all jobs. Partnerships with the city to help fill their staffing needs going forward will be important. Trade, transportation, utilities, and leisure and hospitality have gained jobs and continue to grow. These sectors make up 14 percent, and 10 percent of employment in Philadelphia. Construction, and leisure and hospitality, had the highest increase in employment growth.

Keeping up with employment and industry trends both locally, regionally and nationally are important to make sure that our offerings are labor-market responsive. We also will work closely with our colleagues in the Kenney Administration to focus on priority sectors that they seek to grow. As we look to increase the offerings in open enrollment, we will begin to focus on those key sectors of Philadelphia’s economy that are growing, and try to be ahead of the curve in helping initiate offerings in emerging areas of opportunity that can assist individuals in becoming more upwardly mobile.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)

Education may not be able to completely solve our city’s problems, but it is key to addressing some of its deepest issues. In July 2014, President Obama signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which identifies four key goals:

  1. Increase the focus on serving the most vulnerable workers
  2. Expand education and training options
  3. Help disadvantaged and unemployed adults and youth earn while they learn
  4. Align planning and accountability policies across core programs

In Philadelphia, Philadelphia Works is the local Workforce Development Board, and is responsible for setting policy and overseeing the workforce development investments made in Philadelphia County. Under WIOA, Philadelphia Works will now serve both WIOA clients and individuals who participate in the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) programs at the four PA CareerLink Centers in Philadelphia. This integrated approach is more productive and coordinated, thereby making it more efficient and economical. One of the additional key updates within the Act is to reflect the fact that a postsecondary credential is increasingly necessary to attaining family-sustaining wages, and to steer the system away from a “job-first” mentality to a structure that emphasizes obtaining a “recognized postsecondary credential.” These changes mean more opportunity for training, and as a result, the College can be positioned to be a recognized state training provider for a variety of programs that can help individuals learn new skills and gain employment.

A key factor in solving Philadelphia’s ongoing challenges will involve taking advantage of the WIOA opportunities. WIOA requires more employer involvement in education and training decisions, more short-term training opportunities for participants, more contextualized learning and teaching, more career pathways, more integration of informal (noncredit) and formal (credit) programs, and greater access for the hardest to serve populations.

There are two areas of growing importance within the design of innovative workforce development programs at community colleges: micro-credentials and stackable credits.

Stackable Credits

With the high cost of postsecondary education and individuals who need to work while attending school, a new approach is necessary to meet these consumers’ needs. Individuals now wish to get their education in pieces and expect that they can come back, have their previous training count, and potentially get credit for work experience. By creating stackable credits, you begin to eliminate barriers of entry to the College for individuals who may have needed that initial positive reinforcement through a noncredit training program and relevant work experience before taking the next step and enrolling in credit-bearing classes. This vertical integration of the noncredit to credit side of the College will create pipelines for our programs so that many of these individuals can later enter programs offering higher skills, longer training and more valued certificates or degrees.


Community College of Philadelphia works in partnership with our Workforce Development Board to serve individuals seeking education and training in order to improve their life circumstances. A current initiative that the College and Philadelphia Works are collaborating on is a Workforce Innovation Fund (WIF) grant project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The project is to develop and offer “micro-credentials” to potential job seekers to enhance their chances of gaining employment and getting on a career pathway.

Micro-credentials are certificates earned by individuals after completing short-term training programs that have had their curriculum and assessments validated by employers. These micro-credentials allow participants to take small steps on their road to achieving competency or mastery of a longer term intensive skill or professional certification. Similar to stackable credits, earned micro-credentials can provide the motivation needed for an individual to take the next step in their career and seek additional education to continue to move up professionally. The College’s program will primarily target the College’s Adult Basic Education, ESL, GED, developmental education, and ex-offender program populations. All participants will receive the three basic work-ready micro-credentials: Computer Literacy, 21st Century Workplace Essentials and 21st Century Core Communication Skills. Participants will then move into a three-hour Orientation to Careers, a venue for exploring the various career options prior to committing to a particular training path. Following the initial workplace skills micro-credentials, participants will move into training within their chosen career area of interest, including new and existing certificate programs within Corporate Solutions.

Going forward, Workforce and Economic Innovation is seeking to keep all of these issues and trends, and many more, in mind as we create new programs and work with our colleagues both internally and externally to make Philadelphia’s human capital an even stronger asset. These efforts will contribute to the strength and growth of our local economy, improving the prospects for all Philadelphians in the years ahead.

Carol J. de Fries is the Vice President for Workforce and Economic Innovation (WEI) at Community College of Philadelphia.


  • Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia: The State of the City, A 2016 Update,” March 31, 2016.
  • Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia 2015: The State of the City”, March 28, 2015.
  • Philadelphia Department of Commerce Annual Report on Jobs and Economic Development, 2014.
  • American Association of Community Colleges, “The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: A Guide for Community Colleges”, October 2014.
  • Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), “New Opportunities to Improve Economic and Career Success for Low Income Youth and Adults: Key Provisions of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA),” Kisha Bird, Marcie Foster and Evelyn Ganzglass, September 2014.
  • Manufacturing Outlook Business Survey, The Federal Reserve, March 2016.
  • Philadelphia Works, “Workforce Trends and Data.”