The City of Philadelphia recently began piloting a fellowship program that will enable qualified immigrant jobseekers to gain crucial municipal work experience. The model draws on key principles recommended by National Skills Coalition as part of effective work-based learning policies.
The fellowship program is one of several that are being launched as part of a new initiative, “City as Model Employer,” spearheaded by Philadelphia Mayor James F. Kenney, the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, and the Managing Director’s Office. The initiative will assist individuals with barriers to employment in advancing along a career pathway into permanent employment with City government or an employer partner.
The program represents an innovative approach to tackling the under-employment of immigrants who have legal work authorization and educational credentials, but have not been able to find skill-appropriate employment. Simultaneously, it also helps to address municipal government’s need for workers to fill key middle-skill positions.
In addition to the immigrant fellowships, several other programs serving US-born Philadelphia residents will be piloted over the next three years. Each will target a specific population of workers who face barriers, including out-of-school youth, justice-involved individuals, and adults who lack foundational skills and credentials.
City government is one of the largest employers in Philadelphia. The Kenney administration has said it hopes to lead by example in providing opportunities to people who have historically found it difficult to access good jobs and family-sustaining wages. The fellowship program is meant to strengthen career pathways that allow workers to progress from part-time or temporary positions to full-time, permanent employment.
The fellowship program launched with a small inaugural class of five fellows, who are being housed at the city Departments of Commerce (two fellows), Department of Licenses & Inspections, Office of Domestic Violence, and Office of Innovation and Technology. Funding for each of the fellowship participants’ wages is coming from the budget of the individual city department in which they are working.
While the program is not structured as a formal apprenticeship, it does include some elements consistent with high-quality work-based learning policies as outlined in NSC’s federal and state policy recommendations. They include:
- A combination of paid work experience (participants will be paid $13/hour during their 12-week fellowship placements) and classroom learning (prior to beginning their work experience, participants were required to complete the Immigrant Professionals Program at the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians)
- Supportive services provided through a trusted partner with expertise in serving the participant population (in this case, the Welcoming Center)
- An intentional effort to include targeted populations of disadvantaged adults (in this case, unemployed or under-employed immigrants)
The impetus for focusing on immigrants as one of the target populations stems in part from the city’s growing population of individuals with international degrees and experience. Since 1990, Philadelphia has seen its foreign-born population nearly double. Today, the city is home to nearly 200,000 immigrants comprising 13 percent of the total population. Immigrant city residents are more likely than US-born residents to have advanced education, with 28 percent of immigrants having a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 25 percent of the native-born.
Yet despite their educational attainment, many of these individuals are struggling to survive in low-wage jobs that do not draw on their full talents and abilities. This widespread issue, sometimes termed “brain waste,” is particularly acute among immigrants who earned their degrees abroad, and among individuals from Africa or Latin America. Research shows that a major barrier for such individuals is gaining U.S. work experience that can help them demonstrate their expertise to American employers.