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In Conversation: An Interview with Phil Brooks of the University City Science Center


In my exploration of innovation and community engagement, one name that consistently stands out is Phil Brooks, a visionary leader with the University City Science Center in Philadelphia. His work is not merely a study in workforce development; it's a roadmap to a future where communities are transformed by integrating skills, dedication, and an inclusive approach to education.


I've been deeply inspired by Phil's commitment to building a workforce that represents the communities where innovation doesn't just occur but thrives. Through initiatives like the Science Center’s Building an Understanding of Lab Basics (BULB) program, Phil's efforts extend to understanding the region's talent needs, particularly in the biotech industry. Using data and analysis as cornerstones, his approach connects individuals with growing opportunities that match their skills and interests while fostering economic mobility.


His unique strategy has involved building bridges between communities and companies, creating neither transactional nor superficial partnerships but transformative ones. From job fairs organized by faith-based organizations to innovative collaborations aligning goals across various sectors, Phil's approach resonates with an authenticity grounded in real action.


Join me as I explore with Phil the mechanisms behind his remarkable work. Together, we'll uncover the strategies, partnerships, and insights paving the way for increased economic mobility in STEM sectors like biotechnology. This is more than an interview; it's a conversation about a future where education, employment, and community grow hand in hand, right in the heart of West Philadelphia (University City).

 

Sally: In your work with the University City Science Center, how have you found successful ways to integrate skills into communities? Could you provide a specific example or initiative that worked particularly well?


We focus on getting as much feedback from the community and companies for a variety of our initiatives. Within our workforce development efforts, this comes down to meeting residents of the Greater Philadelphia area where they are and aligning the needs of companies to enhance curriculum and training. The integration of skills begins with exposure to why these skills are important and the benefits they could have on an individual’s career trajectory. For example, in developing the BULB program, we worked with several partners to determine regional talent needs. This Cell and Gene Therapy & Connected Health needs assessment study projected data saying there is/will be a need for talent on all education and work experience levels for these industries. These projections were updated in 2022, emphasizing this sector's critical need for talent (Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia). This data and analysis have been the cornerstone to “why” we do this work, and ensuring that Philadelphia residents know about these growing opportunities is vital to our mission and goals.


Sally: What strategies or approaches have you employed to foster effective partnerships between communities and companies for skill enhancement and job placement?


We keep the strategies simple but effective and learn the best ways to communicate with our audiences. This is not easy, and it takes time to build and cultivate that trust which is extremely important to make significant and positive changes. I grew up in the community of the audience we serve, which gives me a unique approach to our work. The Science Center has been supporting economic development for 60 years; in that time, we have developed strong relationships with regional companies. Combining this was the first major strategy, which worked well to start our workforce development efforts.


Scenes from a BULB cohort at the University City Science Center. Image courtesy of Phil Brooks.


Sally: Given your background in strengthening STEM initiatives in the Philly region, can you share insights on how such initiatives can lead to increased economic mobility?


Much of the STEM initiative experience in my professional career was focused on young people. How do we connect them to opportunities? How do we get them excited about the jobs of the future? Economic mobility starts with knowing. This is a disservice to progress in our society. With our efforts at the Science Center, we build that bridge between companies and the community to ensure economic mobility is a reality, not just a theory.


Sally: Could you expand on the role of large-scale service events/projects in community skill integration and job placement? What have been some key takeaways from your experience?


This is of particular importance to me in the way we engage Philly residents with various opportunities in this industry. Faith-based organizations like Christian Stronghold Baptist Church and Mt. Carmel Baptist Church organize and provide abundant resources in their communities. In addition to many opportunities shared with the community, job fairs have become a priority to ensure job seekers know the available options. I had the privilege to engage folks this summer, and our interest in our work was incredible. We received a lot of, “we had no idea this was taking place” or, “this sounds like something I can do from individuals of various backgrounds.” Engaging faith-based organizations have been a catalyst to building that “bridge” and ensuring that folks have a multitude of options to develop their skills for the desired career path.


Sally: How have you successfully aligned the priorities of community partners and workforce initiatives to impact job placements and economic mobility?


Priorities vary from partner to partner, but the overall goal of connecting folks to employment remains the same. Direct referrals, LinkedIn connections, email introductions, job fairs, and program overviews are some successful ways we have made significant connections to multiple opportunities and economic mobility.


BULB cohort Zoom meeting. Image courtesy of Phil Brooks.


Sally: Finally, could you share some insights or advice for communities on effectively collaborating with companies to enhance job placement and increase economic mobility?


My biggest piece of advice is to be genuine about what you say you will do. I was fortunate to participate in a national group focusing on workforce development. A workforce provider from Hawaii talked about a strategy they use when developing and growing partnerships. Instead of looking at a professional relationship as transactional, look at it as mutual/ transformative. Finding mutual respect and aligning goals takes work, and individuals tend to need to catch up on why they are doing the work in the first place. Real talk: this is not their business if folks are in this for selfish reasons, ego, or bragging rights. There is legitimately too much work that needs to get done, and it is extremely difficult to get it done in a silo. My last piece of advice is to read as much as you can about the industry. Although I have a laser focus on the Philadelphia region, I do my best to stay connected to what is happening statewide and nationally. In September of 2022, an executive order to advance this industry became our nation's priority. In particular, this excerpt hits home for the work we do locally… “train and support a diverse, skilled workforce and next generation of leaders from diverse groups to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing.”


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Explore specialized programs for adult learners across various industries within the Philadelphia region. Designed with the goal of upskilling and securing job placements:


Cait Garozzo, Executive Director


Nicole Pumphrey, Managing Director

Kena Sears, Director

 

Are you interested in transforming your community through aligned workforce programs that keep pace with industry trends? Contact Sally J. Guzik at Fourth Economy today at [email protected]. Learn more about how we support communities in identifying, strategizing, and implementing initiatives bridging the gap between talent and opportunity.


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