PHILADELPHIA: Even as COVID-19 vaccine distribution ramps up in Philadelphia, the virus remains prevalent, and shoring up testing capabilities is a key way to protect local residents. Penn Medicine has tapped into a workforce in its own backyard to expand testing efforts in the area: Through the University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI), the health system has hired 50 new laboratory assistants, who will play a pivotal role in collecting and processing large quantities of testing samples. The Skills Initiative connects Philadelphians who are under- or unemployed to the region’s major employers, in an effort to move city residents into higher-wage, secure careers, from which they have been historically disconnected.
“Hiring our talented neighbors not only ensures that we will continue to meet the testing needs of the community, but also that we are creating pathways to healthcare and laboratory science careers for local jobseekers, many of whom have been living in intergenerational poverty,” said Kevin Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “We recognize that they will make an important contribution to our health system and our city’s healthcare infrastructure, and they’re joining us in a crucial time in our fight against COVID-19.”
Shardey Adkinson, a Penn Medicine lab assistant hired through the WPSI program, receives a saliva sample from a patient in Houston Hall, where Penn students, faculty, and staff are being screened for COVID-19.
To meet the increased demand for COVID testing in Philadelphia, Penn Medicine made plans in the fall to not only keep its 4040 Market Street community testing site operational, but also to open eight additional testing sites throughout the University of Pennsylvania campus, in order to screen Penn students, faculty, and staff for the virus. The health system also worked with the university to convert a campus anatomy lab into a saliva-based testing processing center and is preparing to open a laboratory in Rittenhouse Square later this spring. Knowing these plans would require a large and well-trained staff., Penn Medicine joined forces with the University City District to tap into the group’s longstanding community workforce program.
Despite vibrant economic activity in University City, fueled by the region’s “meds and eds,” 28 percent of West Philadelphia families live in poverty. Founded 10 years ago by the University City District (UCD), WPSI evolved from a small internship program into one of the nation’s most successful workforce development organizations. The initiative was created in order to bridge the gap between major local institutions and long-time neighborhood residents by building customized pipeline training for new staff — connecting employers seeking talent with West Philadelphians seeking opportunity.
With the scarcity of new frontline jobs due to the pandemic, Penn Medicine opened the door to new career possibilities for WPSI graduates during difficult economic times.
Lab assistants receive the nasal swabs and saliva specimens, log them into the computer system, and prepare them for lab technicians to perform molecular diagnostic testing.
“The Skills Initiative succeeds because of deep-rooted collaboration with Philadelphia’s leading employers,” said Matt Bergheiser, president of University City District. “As a founding WPSI partner, Penn Medicine has long been a leader in recruiting untapped local talent to transform workplaces while changing lives.”
Three cohorts of employees from the WPSI program joined Penn Medicine this past fall. Among them, 93 percent are Black, 90 percent are women, and five hold bachelor’s degrees. Training for the new hires included professional development delivered virtually by WPSI staff and laboratory skills taught by Penn Medicine staff. The model consisted of a condensed, two-and-a-half-weeks of self-paced, classroom content and small group work sessions, paired with about 40 hours of hands-on technical experience.
Lab assistant jobs such of these can often be inaccessible for applicants without college degrees or laboratory experience, according to Robert Challender, chief operating officer and corporate director of laboratory services for Penn Medicine.
“While a bachelor’s degree isn’t required for these entry-level roles, health systems typically hire college graduates for the positions, and then further train the individuals to progress into more senior roles in the laboratories. Post-pandemic, Penn Medicine will transition the cohorts of lab assistants into other parts of the health system, depending on the employee’s interests and skillsets,” Challender said.
David Roth, MD, PhD, chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said “the WPSI program is giving people a path to careers in fields like laboratory science, medical technology, nursing, and pathology,” and broadening Penn Medicine’s reach to job applicants who may have been overlooked.
Planning has already begun to evaluate the many opportunities throughout the health system where the lab assistants can make a meaningful impact in the future, according to Dwaine Duckett, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Penn Medicine.
“We are pleased that we’ve widened the scope of how we evaluate and recruit candidates for jobs, giving people from the community access to positions they may not have thought about, taking into account their innate talents and skills. The WPSI-Penn partnership also gives more people of color access to Penn Medicine’s professional development benefits and tuition assistance,” Duckett said. “We are looking forward to working with this cohort of lab assistants and other community-based hires who will come after them, growing their careers within the health system.”