Business-School Partnerships as an Economic Development Strategy

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April 2, 2018

Economic development has become a topic discussed with increasing frequency in recent years. The broad phrase encompasses an almost endless list of pressing issues: job creation, business attraction, neighborhood revitalization, equitable housing… the list goes on. 

Semantics aside, almost anyone will agree that economic development is a topic we should be discussing. Economic development was the most commonly addressed topic for mayors in 2017, according to the National League of Cities’ (NLC) annual analysis of mayoral speeches. For our elected officials, the ultimate goal for their cities is economic vitality –a flourishing business environment, sustainable and equitable revitalization of local communities, and development and retention of strong talent pipelines.

Here in Philadelphia, the Kenney administration recently rolled out a detailed new workforce initiative in Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine. The report addresses Philadelphia’s pervasive skills gap by proposing strategic interventions and laying out specific targets that will contribute to economic improvement. These goals include: preparing Philadelphians with skills in demand by employers, addressing the underlying barriers that hinder access to career opportunities, and building a better-coordinated, innovative, and effective workforce system.

Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce is helping to advance some of these goals by acting as a conduit between the city’s education and business communities. The goal of this burgeoning business-school partnership initiative is two-fold: offering citizens effective workforce education programs and equipping students with the tools needed for success throughout college and into their careers.

The first component of the desired business-schools partnership addresses workforce education and training by asking our city’s employers to provide “16,000 young people with the opportunity to gain high-quality work experience (through job shadowing, internships, or apprenticeships) by 2020. “ Drexel president John Fry feels that Kenney is setting a  “'high-bar for the business community' by encouraging employers to invest in building a pipeline of skilled Philadelphia workers," and this level of expectation is exactly what Philadelphia needs.

The second component of the partnership centers on better preparing students for college and careers. Philadelphia’s public school system is the city’s most important long-term talent development pipeline, critical for business growth and attraction.  By establishing mentoring programs, curriculum changes, or a combination of the two, officials can ensure that students are graduating from high school prepared for a successful trajectory throughout college and their future careers.    

One example of how this partnership can create lasting change is Ernst and Young’s College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence) Program. Launching in 9 pilot cities, including Philadelphia, in 2009, the “multi-year group mentoring program focuses on empowering students in underserved high schools so they can gain access to college and succeed in higher education.” Now in 32 cities across the US, EY reports that 90% of College MAP Scholars who graduate high school enroll in college, and 5% enroll in trade or vocational schools or join the armed forces.

EY Philadelphia has 35 mentors who spend one morning each month with about 50 College MAP participants at a local high school in Philadelphia.  I attended last month’s College MAP day, and was immediately struck by the influence of the program.  I sat in the auditorium and watched the high-school juniors file in, high-fiving their mentors and breaking into small groups to discuss college scholarships. Throughout the whole morning, it was evident that these mentors aren’t simply coming in each month to deliver programming and leave; they are building relationships with their students that will last beyond the scope of College MAP days.

Given the many ways the Philadelphia business community can get involved in Mayor Kenney’s workforce plan, Commerce is helping to systematize the process: “More intentional coordination and collaboration across systems to improve outcomes for individuals, employers, and the economy as a whole.”  After witnessing the success that EY has seen with College MAP, Commerce is hoping to help replicate similar programming with other businesses around the Greater Philadelphia area. There is such enormous potential to begin dismantling the skills gap and improving college-readiness through collaboration between local schools and local businesses, and we know this approach will ultimately have a significant impact on the economic prosperity of Philadelphia.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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