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Phila. workforce found lacking on many levels

There are too few participants, a report found, and more education and skills are required to supply the labor pool of the future.

Philadelphia's biggest economic problem is an undereducated and underemployed workforce that lacks skills, according to a new report.

Titled "A Tale of Two Cities," the 21-page treatise is sobering. Among the 100 largest cities in the nation, Philadelphia has one of the lowest rates of labor-force participation. In other words, fewer city residents work, or are looking for work, than residents in other cities.

Philadelphia also has a low proportion of college graduates, partly because of college dropouts. Eighty-thousand city residents between 25 and 45 enrolled in college but failed to graduate, the report says.

About 1 in 4 city residents dropped out of high school, which is double the national average, and 60 percent are considered poor readers.

"You can't think that you can leave behind 25 percent of your young people and have a workforce of the future," said Sallie Glickman, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, a government-sponsored nonprofit agency that produced the report. "We have to understand why people are not working."

Policymakers and elected officials have been preoccupied with other economic issues in the last 15 years: building the tourism industry, rescuing decaying neighborhoods, and cutting city taxes, Glickman said. They also have not emphasized the importance of adult education, she said.

The report's release was timed to influence the debate in the mayor's race.

Its backstory is a familiar one. Large economic forces led to a devastating restructuring of Philadelphia's manufacturing base, which eliminated a typical pathway to a middle-class job for high school graduates. A worker could get a manufacturing job and then learn skills on the job, climbing an income ladder in the process.

As those manufacturing jobs disappeared - from 230,000 in the early 1970s to about 30,000 today - so did the pathway. What replaced some of the factory job losses was a vibrant health-care industry, which needs skilled professionals with formal educations and degrees.

Paul Harrington, an economist with the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and a consultant for the report, said Philadelphia appears to be a "city of extremes," with educated workers doing very well and others not doing well at all.

"Is there a mobility pathway in Philadelphia? Sure there is," he said. "But it goes through the education system."

Harrington said the level of unemployed African American men in Philadelphia is high and troubling. In 2005, fewer than 50 percent of African American men between the ages of 16 and 64 had jobs.

In 1990, almost 60 percent of them held jobs - which shows an economic decline for African American men in the last 15 years in the city, he said.

Certain civic projects to boost the city's economy focus on attracting companies from outside the region to relocate here. But the primary strategy to expand the city's economy should focus on improving skills among local residents so they qualify for new jobs, Glickman said. With an available labor pool, companies would hire here.

According to the report, if Philadelphia could improve the education level of its residents to match the education level throughout Pennsylvania, the city would add 32,000 workers. This would lower unemployment and fatten the city's wage base by $1.8 billion a year, the report says.

The report does not make suggestions on how to make this happen. Glickman said she hopes the report triggers a dialogue on the topic.

Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, said the report was a "clarion call to action."

"We can't go forward as a city or a region if we don't improve the educational outcomes of the people at the lower income levels," she said.

"We have got to do a lot more with education, and we've got to make education more relevant to this new economy," Matlock-Turner said.

Glickman has listened to the debate over high city taxes. But she doesn't think taxes are the only bogeyman in the city's economic future.

"I don't want to discount taxes. But it seems like there is a much bigger problem," Glickman said. "The problem is not investing in our people to fuel our growth."