Originally published by The Philadelphia Citizen
In a city where the poverty rate continues to hover at nearly 25 percent, in part because incomes are too low, careers in biotech and health—which continue to be among the fastest-growing sectors in the city—could pave the way out of poverty. One report from May 2020 projected a 94 percent growth in employment over the next 10 years in the Philly region’s cell and gene therapy industry alone.
The folks at the nonprofit University City Science Center recognize this. That’s why, last summer, they launched BULB: Building and Understanding Lab Basics. It’s an intensive, two-week program open to any Philadelphia resident with a GED or high school diploma who’s had some kind of workforce experience. Its mission: to develop more opportunities for Philadelphians to attain “family-sustaining” careers in high-growth STEM industries.
Phil Brooks, director of STEM Workforce Partnerships at the Science Center, believes that there are all sorts of avenues for people to be a part of Philly’s STEM workforce.
“Yes, a lot of local companies are looking for high-level talent: They’re looking for VPs, they’re looking for people to run a team and a lab. But when I dive deeper into my conversations with companies, they say, Hey, we need folks who are accountants, we need folks who are executive assistants, we need folks who have customer service or maybe a healthcare background and are really good with people,” he explains.
“So if an executive assistant opportunity comes up at a biotech company, and our graduate has the BULB curriculum under their belt, they understand the basics of what that company does on an everyday basis, and that’s just adding to the pot of their work experience in a way that’s going to make their interview more attractive,” Brooks says.
BULB is the brainchild of Brooks, who’s no stranger to the intersection of Philly’s workforce development and science realms.
Growing up in West Philadelphia, Brooks spent time as a child living in shelters before he headed off to Girard College. (Fun Philly fact: He went to elementary school with GreenLight Philadelphia CEO Omar Woodard.) He’d always loved science, and after college he started working in the nonprofit education sector, spending nearly a decade at City Year before joining city government, working for mayors Nutter and Kenney on STEM workforce development initiatives.
Youth have always—and will always—be dear to Brooks’ heart. But he recognized that as our city’s life science scene grows, so too do opportunities for residents who may not have been plugged into the sciences in school, but still have important skills to offer. With his extensive network of contacts throughout the city and within the life sciences, he wanted to carve out a path for them.
He mapped out the BULB program by consulting with his contacts to find out what roles they were looking to fill, and what skills they valued.
“We’re not ignorant to the fact that it takes certain degrees to have certain roles. But with so many different life science companies planting their flags in Philadelphia, it’s more cost-effective to hire from the local region, and it gets you more connected with the community in a way that isn’t just a statement of saying Hey we’re going to print out this racial equity statement to say we’re doing something and then not actually doing something. It puts your money where your mouth is,” Brooks says. “You want to invest in Philadelphia? Well, those same people your company is going after as customers or patients are the same people who are looking for jobs.”