COVID-19 cancels many summer plans, but will not stop summer jobs in Philadelphia

Chekemma J. Fulmore-Townsend, President and CEO, Philadelphia Youth Network

Every year, in cities and communities across the country, young people participate in summer jobs. These important opportunities help them gain valuable workforce skills and earn an income. While this year will be dramatically changed by COVID-19, we know that summer programs for our young people will be even more important as we recover from the impacts of this pandemic. This is why Philadelphia partners are united and committed to ensuring young people are safe, healthy, and able to engage in paid summer experiences. (A webinar on May 28, 2020, from 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. ET will discuss this issue. Register here.)

In Philadelphia, our city’s largest coordinated system of summer jobs for young people is WorkReady, managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN). WorkReady provides real-world experiences through early to advanced opportunities to prepare young people for a competitive workforce. Just as PYN was beginning to contract with a network of 80+ youth-serving organizations and preparing to enroll thousands of WorkReady participants, the city and state closed schools and nonessential businesses to combat the spread of the coronavirus. We knew our system could recover from a short-term delay; but by early April the world as we knew it had changed forever.

While this year will be dramatically changed by COVID-19, we know that summer programs for our young people will be even more important as we recover from the impacts of this pandemic. This is why Philadelphia partners are united and committed to ensuring young people are safe, healthy, and able to engage in paid summer experiences.

Philadelphia, like many cities across the country, are experiencing the devastating realities of this crisis.  Every community is unique, many have announced the difficult decision to suspend summer jobs programming this year, and others are exploring digital and virtual opportunities. Whether you are still working to adapt summer programming or contingency planning for what comes next, here are four key take-aways we believe are crucial to ensure young people are not left out of the economic recovery efforts.

  1. Adaptive thinking – Learn fast, adapt fast, repeat. This is especially important for organizations that need to coordinate and bring along partners. We had to do in weeks what we normally do in months or years. We redeployed staff, retooled youth experiences, and reengineered the system for implementation. We rapidly gathered data and in four weeks, Philadelphia had a working plan to continue summer programming, which our Mayor announced on May 5th. None of this could be possible without a radical shift in thinking.
  2. Coordinating partners – I am humbled and energized by our network of partners, and their willingness and ability to help us push forward. We could not have developed a plan without their insight and the responsive way they gathered data, shared ideas, and contributed to our plan. One of the most important steps we took in Philadelphia, was coordinating quickly with our partners to find the best path forward.
    • Service Delivery Partners: We quickly surveyed youth-serving organizations to inform our planning and tailor messaging. To move forward, we needed to increase communication and adjust our processes to give practitioners as much clarity and flexibility as possible.
    • Funders –We wanted to understand all of our funders’ (large and small, local and national) priorities, boundaries, and aptitude for change, while being sensitive to their unique challenges in the pandemic. We shared our plans and invited them to adapt with us. Most welcomed the opportunity to work flexibly and strategically.
    • Employers – Employers can pay for youth experiences, host them in their business, or both. Philadelphia’s business community plays a vital role in WorkReady, creating roughly 1,000 worksites and investing over $1M in their future workforce every summer. Covid-19 is impacting businesses differently, and while we are still uncertain if traditional in-person opportunities will be possible this summer, we are grateful for employers that have been able to step up ensuring this important work continues. Ongoing communication with our business community remains critical as we plan for safe and feasible summer options.
    • System Partners – Local government and system partners play critical roles in coordinating large systems. The City of Philadelphia Office of Children and Families and Philadelphia Works are our two largest partners and investors locally. These partners were managing urgent disruptions across different parts of their systems, and we’re appreciative they made it a priority to be available, engage, and share information. Redesigning programming across the city required system leaders to work together quickly and effectively. Coming to these partners with flexible solutions for consideration and refinement made it easier to quickly plan and unite as a city.
    • Young People –Our priority is ensuring young people are healthy and safe. PYN focused on directing young people to resources for food access, digital and at-home learning experiences, and the latest information from the school district, city and state. Our work with young people fueled our commitment to developing a plan for them to learn and earn in safe ways. As we move forward, we are working with our partners and youth-serving organizations to ensure program messaging and instructions for summer opportunities are as clear and coordinated as possible.
  3. Programmatic shifts – During a time where we face uncertainty about the duration of worksite closures and the safety protocols for reopening, digital experiences allow young people to safely and easily access workforce opportunities where they are. It also gives them the chance to participate in and prepare for the future of work right now.
    • Implementation – We needed to scale up digital experiences to either replace or supplement in-person experiences. PYN worked with Naviance, a college and career readiness technology solution, and were able to build digital experiences. Participants will have digital experiences to earn incentives focused on digital career exposure, financial literacy and digital literacy and brand identity.
    • Access – Young people have varying levels of digital access and literacy. We know young people living in poverty are more likely to have less access. Despite this reality, the expectations of school and work will continue to require digital competence in order to participate and succeed. Lifelong learning, and the ability to adapt quickly and solve complex problems will be essential to our workforce. With nearly 90% of participants living at or below the federal poverty line, PYN’s diverse programs work to connect them to solutions and to close the knowledge gap by offering comprehensive programs that promote skill development. Comcast, headquartered in Philadelphia, has taken extra steps to make internet access even more affordable to low-income families during the pandemic and schools have loaned computers to students who need one.
    • Safety & Preparedness to Reopen– PYN is monitoring guidelines and recommendations from local, state and federal officials as well as youth-serving organizations, employers and partners to determine if a transition for an in-person experience will be possible this summer.
  4. Coordinated Plan – We are implementing flexible options for youth-serving organizations and participants, working with funders and system partners to problem-solve obstacles as they emerge, and above all, striving to be solutions-driven. Creating a coordinated plan hand-in-hand with our partners continues to be more important than ever to keep progress possible.

We believe this summer will give us new insights and lessons for improving WorkReady for years to come. We believe the shifts we are making will better prepare young people for the future of work equipped with digital, and remote experiences. We know that summer employment is a critical part of PYN’s Career Development Framework. While we know that the challenges from Covid-19 are far from over, we believe in the promise of young people and our commitment to prepare them for the future they deserve.