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Sheila Ireland, President & CEO of Philadelphia OIC: Empathy, Not Sympathy, In Workforce Development

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Sheila Ireland, President & CEO of Philadelphia OIC: Empathy, Not Sympathy, In Workforce Development


“It is not enough to suggest that people who are unemployed simply need to get a job. For us, it's about connecting to your understanding of what is your vision for yourself and your families? How do you add value, because you are valuable and we need your contribution,” says Sheila Ireland, president and CEO of Philadelphia OIC, a venerable force in the city’s workforce training landscape. Workforce development as a tool for economic empowerment and social justice is in the DNA of OIC, and it’s a philosophy Ireland, who has 30 years of leadership experience in human resources and workforce training, is building on as she tackles persistently high rates of poverty and unemployment in what is ranked as the poorest big city in America. As she tells Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan, she believes the formula for success has to include high expectations of clients and private sector partners who can move trainees beyond the first rung of the career ladder. Tune in for a candid and super insightful discussion of best practices in workforce training and stay tuned to hear about positive signs in Philadelphia of growing job opportunities in the tech sector and higher ed institutions being more responsive to the needs of lower-income students.


Van Ton- Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.

For many years, Philadelphia has been ranked as the nation’s poorest big city, but with its poverty rate declining in recent years, it may be able to shake that unwelcome title before long. Today we’re going to talk with a veteran of the workforce and economic development community in Philadelphia to learn about the strategies being used, and those being planned, to help more people achieve financial stability.

I’m happy to welcome Sheila Ireland, who has 25 years of leadership experience in human resources and workforce development in the nonprofit healthcare, consulting, government and public utility fields. In 2022, she became president and CEO of Philadelphia OIC, a venerable force in the city’s workforce training landscape.

Sheila previously oversaw workforce development programs for Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania, and has been named one of the state’s most influential labor leaders.

Thanks very much for joining us, Sheila.

Sheila: It’s my pleasure, Van.

Van: Sheila, why don’t we start by having you paint a picture for us of the economic challenges in Philadelphia and how workforce development fits into the potential mix of solutions.

Sheila: That’s a really great way to start, especially given the background of the organization that I’m leading now. So, OIC Philadelphia was begun by the Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan in 1964. As you know, 1964 was a pivotal time in our history in the United States: the Civil Rights Movement. In Philadelphia in particular, African-Americans were faced with severe economic oppression. And so Dr. Sullivan started something what we call the selective patronage movement, which was the basis for Operation Bread Basket that Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King used in the Civil Rights movement as well.


Selective patronage simply said, we don’t buy where we don’t work. The most repeated example of that was the integration of Tastykake. Reverend Sullivan went to Tatsykake and said we need you to hire people of color to work here. They said, no. Three hundred Baptist preachers go to the pulpit on Sunday morning and say we no longer buy from Tatsykake, and he integrated business after business in Philadelphia with that strategy.


OIC began in 1964 because he said integration without preparation leads to frustration. So, OIC’s model from the beginning has been the intersection of social justice, workforce development and economic development. We launched January 26th, 1964 so it will be our 60th anniversary this year. By 1969, there were 150 OICs across America. By 1971, it was an international movement.  He then went on to serve as the first black corporate director of GM and with the support of GM in the Sullivan principles, GM and seventy companies pulled out of South Africa, which led to the end of apartheid. The man was a genius before his time.


I think today — if he by some miracle arrived back in Philadelphia today in 2024 — I think it would be disappointed by how much the conditions mirror in some ways what was going on in 1964. No, the poverty rate is not as high as it was for people of color then, but I still have zip codes that I serve that exceed 40% poverty. And as you said, while Philadelphia is still the deepest poverty city of the ten major cities in the United States, we’ve come down from 28% in 2011 to closer to 21% or 22% as we speak right now. But when you look in North Philadelphia, where I reside in particular, there’s an overall employment rate of only 43%, right? So, despite the advances we’ve made, there’s still a lot of work to do in particular in this city, especially in the community that I serve.


Van: Well, what a powerful origin story of your organization. I wonder what new directions you are steering OIC towards?


Sheila: So Van, there have been a lot of things that motivate and drive my work over the years, but this truly feels like a capstone moment, if you will. I mean, not the end of the journey, but definitely a capstone moment for me. I’ve been in workforce development now fifteen years. I’ve been in the people business thirty years. I know you said twenty-five, but we don’t want to catfish anybody. So, I’ve been in the game for a very long time.


What has been interesting to me about workforce, and you and I have had this discussion before, is that there is this tendency to try to simplify maybe complex problems with simple answers. The reality is in the position that OIC has put me in it’s a conversation not just about workforce development, “get a job,” but it’s about economic empowerment and income and wealth building in communities of color. And it’s about social justice, right? It’s about diversity, equity, and inclusion. OIC stands at the center of that, and we have for sixty years.


From an economic development perspective, I’m president not just of OIC, but of Progressive Ventures Inc. I own this building. It’s 100,000 square feet at 1200 North Broad. I lease 75% of this building and generate revenue for the organization’s workforce development side of the house and its investment in real estate across the city. So, it is this dynamic where self-help was Dr. Sullivan’s model. It’s about economic empowerment, not the charitable notion because we understand the charity ebbs and flows in some way, but what are we doing to actually move the dime on economic opportunity for the people that we serve? The vehicle is work. We have no greater outcome here at OIC Philadelphia than get a job, but the reality is we understand how all three legs of the stool come together.


So, it’s been my pleasure to be in this role now for sixteen months. I can tell you the first quarter of this fiscal year, we have quadrupled the output of this organization from last year. We have moved from six different tranches of programming to now there are sixteen. We have rolled out marketing and branding. The gala that we are having Friday night is sold out and oversubscribed. We blew past our fundraising goal where — my development officer will kill me — with little effort in some ways. And so it’s an interesting entree into a space where our work is so needed. At the end of the day, I pop up like a daisy every day because the work I do changes people’s lives. It links to human possibility and it reminds us of our greatness, both as individuals and as a collective.


Van: Many of the people listening to this podcast also want to be effective at changing people’s lives and you talk about this work as more than getting people a job. It’s about economic opportunity and empowerment, not charity — I’m repeating your words.  I wonder if you can share some best practices in the way that you think or in the way that you approach the tactics of doing this, to help out some of our listeners.


Sheila: It’s interesting, Van. I always said poverty, unemployment…it feels like there’s a simple solution and I will say, I have one….come here, let’s get a job. But it’s enormously complex. There’s a couple tenets that make our approach very different. One is, and sometimes it feels trite when I say it, but one is respect.  I build programs. When I was in youth development, I would say, “I build programs for my child, not for your child. They exist at a quality that I would want to experience.” I build workforce development programs that I would easily be comfortable doing with corporate executives for entry level staff. There’s a respect in the programming that I do…the sophistication of it, the effectiveness of it, the way I track the data and understand whether it’s effective or not. That would be the first thing I would suggest to you.


The second thing is, it is not enough to suggest that people who are unemployed simply need to get a job. For us, it’s about connecting to your understanding of who you want to be in this life, who you want to be in this world, what is your vision and goal for yourself and your families and the communities that you live in? And how does this all tie together? How do you add value, because you are valuable and we need your contribution in the space we are in. How do we do that? Well, it’s not simply “get a job,” it’s to create a vision for your future.


Lastly, I’ve gotten feedback on this over my entire career. When I say to people, how did you know that the work that I produced was different? The number one answer is because you held me accountable. You see, when you respect people, you hold them accountable. That is the difference between empathy and sympathy. The reality is I believe everyone is creative, resourceful, and whole. I believe everyone wants to take advantage of opportunity and live the American dream, but I say, “I will be the win beneath your wings, but I don’t flap for anybody.” I respect your ability to get what it is you want in life for yourself. I understand the doors of opportunity need to be open. Maybe there’s some knowledge, skills and ability you need. Maybe there’s some connections that you need. Maybe it’s a vision you need to build, but I’m not going to do it for you.


We draw that line with intention, where we are showing what I think of as honesty, integrity, and respect for the people we serve and for the employers that we place them at. It shifts the conversation around what workforce development is.


Van: Sheila, do you mind if I probe a little bit on this issue of holding the individual accountable in terms of empathy and not sympathy?


Sheila: Sure.


Van: How do you convey that from a process or workflow standpoint to all the different staff members who are interacting on the front line?


Sheila: Yeah, so in terms of staff members on the frontline, it’s interesting. I’ve spent my career in what I call startups, turnarounds and realignments. I don’t manage steady state. It’s not interesting to me. I like to clean things up in some way and get people thinking about it in a different way.  I’ve run the public workforce system, and I think sometimes there is a tendency to think of people with less resources as “less than,” and the reality is there’s just less resources in some way.


I’ll tell you what we’re doing here at OIC. When you are running an organization that does not have the brand strategy to drive traffic to the front doors of the organization, and you have funders that you have to fulfill your requirements for, you take anybody, and anybody gets a seat. I feel that’s enormously disrespectful. If I’m aware of what it is I’m able to do, I know that I can take you from point A to point B, but you’ve got to be at point A for me to take you to point B. If I think I can take you to point B and you’re not at point A, I am merely wasting everyone’s time, energy, and money.


I tell people I am the hospital for the unemployed or underemployed that has the resources to provide aspirin. If you have cancer, you cannot come here. Do I feel like you need the help? Absolutely, but I can’t help you. You’ve got to be at the space where I can help you so that there’s return on investment for the funders who fund me, the employers who work with me, and my ability to keep my organization in a financially stable place. That is just the harsh reality of it.


So, once you get staff to understand that despite your desire to help this individual, really, you don’t have the resources, training or background to do that, that’s a prescriptive notion that says, if you are more like me, you’ll be okay. Stop. Be good at what you’re good at. Be the master of your trade and stay in your lane in that way. And what it has helped me to do is build organizations after organization’s effectiveness by just simply being humble about what I can and cannot do.


Van: So Sheila, you’ve been in the public sector, the nonprofit sector, and you’ve also been in the private sector. Talk to us about maybe the difference between the public sector environment and what types of programs you were able to put in place compared to your current role at OIC and the programs that you’re able to put in place.


Sheila: So, in the public sector, Van, a lot of times as a government executive, you get a lot of pressure on what is wrong — societal ills, what can we change, what are my tax dollars paying for?  I’ve come to — and Van, tell me if it resonates for you — I’ve come to this idea that I explain to people that when you want to look at private, nonprofit and public sectors, I return to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So, if you remember Maslow…it’s physiology, safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization at the top.


When you push the public sector for self-actualization or self-esteem or belonging, you are kidding yourself. Our job is to make sure you don’t die. If there’s a pandemic, we get out a vaccine, we flood money into the unemployment system, we make sure that people don’t die. When the public sector is pushed to do these other pieces, we fail and we fail miserably, right? It’s just not what we’re designed to do and for good reason. There should be a function that we’re designed to do.


Nonprofits fall a little closer to the middle of the ladder where we’re starting to talk about jobs and income and whether or not you can establish a career that gives you a sense of esteem and whether you can organize your life in a way or get a job or grow business that gives you a sense of belonging in some way. But that nonprofit space is also not well-equipped for the top of the pyramid because self-actualization is another very interesting approach that I’ve seen people use effectively in well-resourced, curated environments.


So, there’s a dramatic difference in your career and what people can do for you, and as long as we continue to try to push the “easy button” — we want one person to fix everything for us in a complex environment — it doesn’t work. I mean, you think about your own career and think about the first job you had and the job you have now.  For my first job, I was working in a fan making factory in my college town where I made fan parts on the weekend. Trust me, they weren’t concerned about me self-actualizing, right? They were measuring me on the number of fan parts I got made. You know what I mean? And to ask them to be anything else was sort of ridiculous. (laughs)


Van: (laughs) That is a fair point. And so what should be the role of the private sector in workforce development, and what are examples of how OIC is realizing those relationships with employers?


Sheila: So, the private sector is critical to what we do, especially as the employer partner, which is the role that they play for us. Here at OIC, they do a couple things for us. One, they keep me on point as to what their current needs are so that I can adjust my programming to be valuable to what they need.


Secondly, they give you a window into their culture and how people specifically succeed or fail in their culture. That helps me to understand what their training should look like and who should be specifically recruited to go to that particular organization. For instance I think of my “meds and eds” here in Philadelphia. A certified medical assistant at Children’s Hospital in the Critical Care Unit is not the same certified medical assistant at Drexel College of Medicine in Pediatrics. It’s a very different thing, and so it helps me to understand the success and failure of what people are able to do.


Thirdly, what it does for me as an organization is it helps us with our brand strategy. So, we’ve got to be clear that we can deliver that outcome of connecting to work and we also have to be clear that the connection to work is more than just that bottom rung of the ladder, that that’s a 2.0. Those are the employers that we work with who have career ladder opportunities because we’re trying to build a vision for your future that’s bigger than just the job you got at the end of the program. What are you going to be when you grow up? It’s my favorite thing that I like to ask. And how can we help you get there? The private sector helps us with all of that, and they support us financially as well.


Van: And what are you seeing as the brightest opportunities in Philadelphia when it comes to industry sectors?


Sheila: It’s interesting. We’re big “meds and eds” town, right? About 26% of unemployment is concentrated in the meds and eds here. We’re big for that. We’re a big university town as well, with Penn and Temple University. There’s a lot of hiring that goes on in those specific tranches. But we are becoming a life sciences hub, which is fascinating to us as they build out at the Navy Yard. There are other major projects going on here. We have some amazing stories like Spark Therapeutics that grew into this world leader over the past seven, eight years. Their growth has been insane in some ways. So, we know that’s coming.


We’re still a big union labor town, so there’s still opportunities there in labor. We’re starting to become a tech hub. There are any number of tech startups here in this city as well. So, there’s tremendous kind of opportunity going here, and we are sitting in a key spot to be able to leverage it.


Van: Well, I’m going to cheer Philadelphia on knowing all these developments.  The labor market has naturally gone through significant upheaval due to the pandemic. How do you describe the new realities that you’re seeing?


Sheila: Well, there’s a couple that are troubling to me. I think the pandemic accelerated the future of work. I led future of work for the city of Philadelphia and future of work for the state and it was an esoteric exercise on what we thought would happen in the next ten years. Oops. Ten years arrived a lot earlier than we had anticipated in some ways. And I am not in the club that says it’s a bad thing, but I will say that when people are mired in poverty, the jobs they typically have are routine non-cognitive work and as you know, those are most threatened by AI in particular and may disappear in the future. Unfortunately, that’s where poor people are in these frontline positions. Take that, and add onto it the digital divide and the lack of digital literacy — because there’s some myth that because the kid’s on the phone, he’s digitally literate. No. He’s on his phone.


Take those three and unfortunately, sometimes it feels like the perfect storm to create a new divide. I worry very specifically about it, and what are we going to do? In my role as deputy secretary at Labor and Industry for the state, we opened fifty-two public computing centers just based on this idea that we have to bridge the digital divide because it’s a digital labor market. I’m sorry…you’re not going to connect to family sustaining wages if you cannot connect to this market. And so the pandemic has accelerated and changed that idea.


The flip side of the coin is workers developed some agency post pandemic. They took two steps back and said, “Hey, we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re not going to do anything more than is required unless we are paid .” That “quiet quitting.”  Here in Philadelphia, the minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour. It has not moved to even $15 an hour, even though all the surrounding states around Pennsylvania have already passed legislation to make that move. So, if you look at our labor force, we are bleeding at the edges of the state because state lines are arbitrary.


So, the pandemic has accelerated this desire to get to that family sustaining wage, to belong to an organization, to be recognized for our talents regardless of the container that we come in…all of those things have shifted the labor market. And frankly, some employers have been caught flatfooted hoping that once the pandemic was over, it would go back to the way it used to be. I remind people that after every crisis, it never goes back to the way it used to be. This is no different.


Van: In light of all of those trends and the accelerated arrival of the future of work, talk to me for a moment about the equity ownership. You alluded to it when you were introducing yourself such that you’re not renting the facility in which you are doing business, you own the building. There’s value in ownership, but I think the connection between wealth creation and ownership might not be quite clear for the audience, and I wonder if you could talk us through how you think about that.


Sheila: Van, this is a road we are on and we have a funder that has just funded us to help us build this idea and solutions within the work that we are doing. As an example, I went after and funded financial literacy in all of the workforce development that we do. And what I said in this was help me take this notion of what financial literacy is away from the standard “this is a checking account” kind of thing. Look at the norms that I’m dealing with in people who are impoverished and are trying to move to a different class and then address in a concrete, succinct way, the underlying issues.


I’ve done financial literacy in the work I did at the Skills Initiative, and class after class after class hated financial literacy. I did it on the Fridays. I would have stipends. You got to show up to get your stipend, which means you have to do financial literacy, and they would hate every minute of it. When they got real upfront with me about it, Van, they were like, “Talking about money when you’re in poverty is painful. You are talking about things we don’t have, things we don’t have the ability to do, places we’re not sure we are ever going to get. So we find the class depressing.”


I would push back and say, “When you need knowledge and the opportunity to develop skills and abilities, it’s not when you need it, it’s before you need it. That’s why you go to college before you get a job. That’s why you go to high school before you get a job.” Those kinds of things. And so as we started to think about it this time around with my funding in hand, one of the things that we have been thinking about is that our financial literacy curriculum talks about things around delayed gratification and builds that muscle. It talks about things like what is your locus of control? Is it internal or external? That is the way you build the financial foundation.


It talks about what do you do in case of emergencies? Because a lot of people slide out of middle class into poverty and downward because they were the victim of an emergency. But Van, as you know, if you’re going to live this life and have the blessing of living any number of years, there’s going to be an emergency. Why is an emergency a surprise to you? Prepare your life so you can ride through it like this, not like that. And so it’s a new concept when you’ve been in survival mode where every dollar you get goes to something essential in your life and the concept of being able to keep even $5 in your pocket from week to week seems a foreign thing. But the reality is that I’ve watched people do all kinds of things to get to where they want it to go.


Some of it is how are you reacting to a world that if you’re in a certain generation, their whole world is lived on a screen where they’re comparing a fictitious life to their real one. In those spaces, how do you engage your true inner self, get what you really want, and find the strength to move? That’s what our financial literacy program is about. Yeah, we’re teaching about banking, credit and all these other things, right? Well, we’re addressing the underlying issues that prevent people from doing that.


I’ll just say one more thing. One of the norms of poverty is distrust of institutions and the people that represent them. People say, why would you go to a check cashing place? Well, because you don’t have any faith in institutions. They’ve let you down. They’ve treated you as if you were insignificant, like a problem that needed to be addressed and solved so you can get to the next person in line. But the reality is that once you get out of those economic norms, banking is a reality.


So, we have a partnership with the bank that is directly across the street from us. We have stipends embedded in our programs and now when you come to us, before you get a seat in the class, you have a banking relationship across the street. I only pay stipends direct deposit. I make it sound simple. It’s not. All I’m trying to do is prepare people for real life.


Van: These are brilliant best practices. Thank you Sheila, so much, for sharing them. Well, to close, I’m going to touch on your point of faith in institutions and delayed gratification and ask you about colleges and higher education. You sit on two college boards, so you understand the current challenges facing colleges and higher education institutions. Have those struggles created an opportunity for, or put a premium on, workforce development training programs since there’s growing skepticism about the return on investment of a degree?


Sheila: It’s really interesting to sit on the boards on one side of the fence and watch the workforce development people on the other side of the fence understand the gaps. So, I’m straddling the fence in some way. I think what it’s forcing is a couple things. Here, Community College of Philadelphia has an outstanding middle college program where high school students graduate with an associate’s degree and with articulation agreements to the surrounding colleges. So now, college is a two-year cost endeavor as opposed to a four-year cost endeavor. It changes the trajectory of what people are able to do and the length of time.


But what it has done more importantly, is both the boards I sit on, those institutions have started to recognize that workforce is not the poor cousin of education, right? That in fact, people are looking for scaffolding or laddering, for lack of a better word, to enable them to get through this experience. Not everyone’s family has the opportunity to send you to college where you lead four glorious years where you don’t worry about any economic realities of your life. That’s not going on in the deepest poverty city in the United States. People have got to earn and learn, people have got to have on and off ramps, and people have got to understand immediately the financial impact of their investment in their education.


Higher ed, in some ways, has been higher ed simply for higher ed and the reality is that people want to know what result they get for what they pay. Right? They want a different exchange of value. Both of the college boards that I sit on have learned to be increasingly responsible to their customers. Before, I don’t think the college model was necessarily about responsiveness to the students and their needs. It has forced them to move in that direction, and that’s a good thing.


Van: Well, Sheila, I learned so much from spending the time with you. You are such an inspiring leader. Thanks for being with us today.


Sheila: My pleasure, Van.


Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you’ll join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future- focused workforce in America.