The Importance of Higher Education and Workforce Development to a Growing Urban Economy

When I entered city government during the Rendell administration, I worked for the Philadelphia Commerce Department, then headed by Stephen P. Mullin, a founder and principal of ESI. In my role working directly for the Commerce Director, I had the good fortune of seeing the drivers of Philadelphia’s economy. The drivers ranged from the clear dominance of the health care industry, the assets of higher education institutions, a burgeoning technology and life sciences industry, and what is called ‘FIRE’ (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate). I also managed and served as a liaison to several boards that were key to the efforts to grow Philadelphia’s economy, one of which was as a representative to the City’s workforce development organization, now known as PhilaWorks (then known as Philadelphia Private Industry Council).

During this period, the Rendell administration spent a considerable amount of time trying to retain businesses in the city and staunch their outflow to the suburbs. Mixed in there were several successful business attraction efforts including Lincoln Financial moving its Indiana headquarters to Philadelphia (now in the suburbs, though), and ACE Insurance buying CIGNA—convincing the company to retain its Philadelphia presence. Nonetheless, businesses were continually leaving or threatening to leave the city which left me struggling to understand what the future held for Philadelphia and how we could compete in a cycle of economic incentives that other states had greater capacity to offer to businesses and lure them away.

The answer to me was to look more closely at the assets that Philadelphia could offer that businesses would always need—in particular, its workforce. And to be successful, we needed our workforce to have strength across the continuum of education, skills, and industry experience. We needed all of our higher education institutions to produce a workforce that was attractive to businesses. If Philadelphia could invest in these assets, then it would be more likely that businesses would follow labor and not the other way around. There were many conversations about this economic dynamic between Steve Mullin and me that led me to focus my career tying Philadelphia’s future to using our higher education institutions to build talent and the city’s economy.

Retaining a Pipeline of Talent

One early success was paving the way for Campus Philly, an initiative of the Commerce Department during the Rendell administration, then known (in typical government fashion) as the College Student Retention Initiative. However, we shifted the efforts of this initiative to becoming a non-profit during the Street administration, focused on empowering diverse college students and recent graduates to explore, live, and work in Greater Philadelphia—and it will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. This organization has inspired other cities to follow and create their own similar initiatives. Campus Philly works with the over 100 higher education institutions in the region promoting Philadelphia as a viable option to undergraduate and graduate students to choose Philadelphia for their career and home. Notably, in Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia 2024: The State of the City report, the authors noted that the city is more educated than ever with 36.3 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. Up 12 percent from over a decade ago, this is largely driven by the fact that more than 50 percent of those aged 25-34 years old hold a bachelor’s degree.

Researchers Edward Glaeser and Albert Saiz from the National Bureau of Economic Research, in their working paper, Rise of the Skilled City, concluded that a college degree is a strong predictor of urban economic growth and enabling declining urban areas to turn their fate around. Further, as reported by Campus Philly as part of the CEO for Cities Talent Dividend Challenge in 2010, an increase in college attainment of 1% in Greater Philadelphia would create an increase of $4.4 billion in personal income through greater economic opportunities and activities. Additionally, a study by John Winters of Iowa State University showed that states with higher than above-median educational levels drive higher earnings for high school graduates in the same area. Further, this external benefit is particularly robust in locales with a strong STEM graduate population helping to spur innovation and economic growth. Given this new information from Pew and the continued growth in Life Sciences, economic future of Philadelphia continues to be bright.

Yet, despite this significant growth in the city’s educational attainment rate for those holding a bachelor’s degree, Philadelphia remains one of the largest cities with deep poverty. Even with a 36.3 percent bachelor’s attainment rate, more than 63.7 percent of those of working age have less than a college degree. That equates to roughly half a million Philadelphians of working age with less than a college degree. Despite the value of higher education being called into question as the cost of a degree rises, the increase in economic earnings for those with a college degree remains in place. Yet, we also are aware that a college degree is not for everyone, for a variety of factors, and we need solutions to support this population to achieving greater economic stability. And in this area, we can still turn to higher education as a key solution to a path to greater economic mobility through the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).

Growing a Local, Responsive Workforce

Philadelphia’s College, lovingly referred to by most Philadelphians as “Community,” for close to 60 years has been a place for Philadelphians to seek a two-year associate degree or to transfer to a traditional four-year degree. It has a long record of success in educating over 685,000 Philadelphians through its core mission since its founding, educating close to 9000 full time equivalent students and graduating close to 2000 annually. More than 85 percent obtain employment in the Philadelphia region upon graduation.

However, most view community colleges through a very traditional lens—as a gateway to the sought after bachelors. In reality, community colleges are bastions for innovation in blending the power of higher education, employer needs, and flexibility in educational structures that fit the needs of everyday citizens seeking a better life through up-skilling and training in various middle skill careers. Adopting more innovative and blended approaches to further educate Philadelphia’s citizens in job specific training will begin to decrease the economic divide that currently exists in Philadelphia for those who do not have a college degree.

Community colleges, including CCP, have been at the forefront of building programs that are linked to the relevant labor market data that show areas of growth for employment, building stackable credentials that allow individuals to pace their education with their life circumstances, and embed partnerships with employers that allow individuals to earn and learn. Adopting this approach on a greater scale can help lift more Philadelphians out of poverty and into family sustaining jobs. A quick overview of some of these structures is provided below:

Stackable Credentials

Programs can be structured for individuals to learn and attain an industry recognized certification in as few as eight weeks. These certifications align with specific jobs in the local labor market, with the option of stacking several together moving individuals into higher wages, at their own pace while working. Two or more stackable credentials, also described as a micro-pathway, are designed to be delivered flexibly in less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage, starting learner-earners onto the path to an associate degree. Often these programs also create partnerships with four year, and graduate institutions to create bridges to a master’s and doctorate degrees. Community College of Philadelphia partnered with Citizens Bank and the Education Design Lab to create micro pathways in information technology and advanced manufacturing. The City University of New York (CUNY) system, as well as eighteen community colleges in New Jersey have adopted this model to help build steppingstones for their citizens to earn and learn along the way.

Pre-Apprenticeship and Apprenticeship Models

Another innovative model that community colleges are embracing is the pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship models as innovative higher education structures that allow individuals to earn and learn at the same time, with the ability to move into careers that pay family sustaining wages while earning industry aligned certifications and/or an associate degree. CCP and Montgomery County Community College partnered with Aon, a local insurance company, Summer Search, and the Philadelphia Apprenticeship Network to create an apprenticeship that allowed individuals to work full time and earn an associate’s degree for free. The program allows individuals to earn $44,000 a year, with benefits, and cover the cost of college tuition and books, approximately $7000 annually. The apprenticeship is built to provide those who complete the program with a promotion and pay bump, opening access to positions within the company that are normally limited to individuals with a bachelor’s degree. The two years of experience with the company, along with the associates degree, is considered the equivalent of a new hire with a bachelor’s degree. CCP built insurance specific courses as part of the pathway these students are enrolled in so that they can also secure their relevant insurance licenses. This kind of partnership opens doorways for individuals who are often mired in low paying jobs with limited potential for promotion and skill development. Work based experiences built into career pathway training and programs are key to providing individuals with a leg up in their professional trajectory.

Short Term Credential Programs

As Philadelphia’s life sciences industry continues its meteoric growth, CCP looked at how it could adapt a very successful program it created with the Wistar Institute for biomedical technicians, to support the strong need for aseptic lab technicians in the cell and gene therapy sector. Supported by a grant from the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department, CCP built a program that would provide a bridge to raise enrollees’ math skills to college level (a requirement for positions in this field) and help them earn $15/hour during the 10 weeklong workforce training program. The average salary for a lab tech in Philadelphia is $20/hour. CCP partnered with WuXi Advanced Therapies and Integral Molecular which provided two weeks of on-the-job training as well. More than half of the students in the first cohort had jobs lined up before they finished classes. In May, CCP announced an exciting partnership with Google to offer Google IT certificates, which will provide additional opportunities for individuals to expand their technology and analytical skills.

Community College Provides an Essential Component of Workforce and Economic Development

These are just a few of the innovations happening within Community College of Philadelphia as it grows its innovative higher education structures to meet the needs of Philadelphians and employers. CCP has invested heavily in transforming the institution by adopting these innovative educational models and it continues to adapt and create programs that can bring more economic opportunity to its community. Community colleges across the country continue to innovate to remain relevant, affordable, and adaptive to labor market and employer needs to ensure their citizens can tap into affordable higher education and support their local economy. Always keep your eye on what your local community college is doing to see what is next in higher education and workforce development.

Carol de Fries, Senior Advisor

Carol de Fries, Senior Advisor, is an expert at building successful strategic partnerships for economic and civic growth, with more than 15 years of experience in higher education, economic and workforce development, government relations, philanthropy, finance, real estate and business development. She has held senior leadership roles with the University of Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia, the Community College of Philadelphia and JEVS Human Services, dedicating her professional career to supporting Philadelphia’s efforts to grow and expand its economy.


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