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Sheila Ireland

Employer-customized training to career ladders

Sheila Ireland

Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Workforce Development  

Sheila Ireland recently made a new move in a distinguished career leading innovative workforce programming. Ireland was most recently the Vice President of Workforce Solutions at Drexel’s programming partner West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI), part of the University City District special services district, and in that position she played a major role helping Drexel develop its employer customized on-the-job training programs for West Philadelphia residents. She is now leading the City of Philadelphia’s workforce strategies as the Executive Director of the newly established Office of Workforce Development, appointed by Mayor James Kenney.

Her work in workforce access started with an interest in, essentially, why and how people do what they do. “I have always been interested in people’s behaviors, and more specifically, how people go about getting what they want – especially connected to how they get to employment.” Ireland’s professional background began in finance, “which taught me about the importance of the bottom line.” Then she moved into the human resources world, but found aspects of that sector frustrating: “I would see people at the beginning of their career, but not again until I fired them” with little contact along the way regarding career development and success.  

That frustration prompted a shift to employment training, and Ireland spent time developing tools to support job seekers, but observed that not everybody was inclined to use those tools when they were available. In a subsequent organizational development consulting track she helped organizations see their own employment trends and to better understand their hiring and retention challenges. These different experiences gave Ireland a remarkable comprehensive perspective on the landscape of workforce access, having viewed it from just about every possible angle.  

Landing at WPSI let her synthesize these perspectives - building workforce programming that would address all the issues, obstacles, and assets she had noted - to create a support system and to practice hiring in a way that is broader and deeper than an HR office is equipped to do. At the heart of this system is an acknowledgment that a successful employment system is about so much more than providing tools. “I ran training for the City of Philadelphia, and watched the teaching of tools, tools, tools, and I realized it’s not a lack of tools that gets in anybody’s way. It’s those ‘soft’ skills,” referring to capacities like problem solving and conflict management. 

Drexel connected with Ireland in her role at WPSI, as the university began to explore options for building out a local hire strategy. Ireland was soon working withSarah Steltz who was beginning to think more intensively about the best way to bridge local residents into jobs at the university. Like most initial contacts with organizations who are seeking help with hiring and retention, the relationship started with a conversation about goals. 

Such conversations, though, must proceed to the data. Drexel and WPSI looked at the university’s turnover data together, and had what Ireland terms “a boyfriend exercise” in which an analysis asks who is leaving whom. In an area with unusually high turnover – in this case medical assistants in Drexel’s medical practices – are the medical assistants leaving Drexel, or are they being fired? Understanding that dynamic let the WPSI-Drexel team develop a training program that would train new medical assistants, but would also train supervisors, and the result was a drastic reduction in turnover. 

Ireland built the idea of customized training from her experience supporting the workforce needs of a number of different organizations. “Each workplace context is different. For example, with medical assistant certificates, you cannot actually ‘work anywhere,’ because each employment setting classifies and relates to its workers differently.” She also emphasizes that it is crucial for a customized local training and recruitment process to be paired with clearly identified career paths for employees, full time jobs with benefits, and the ability to advance and follow ambitions. 

In Ireland’s take on workplace culture, employee cohort training must tackle the “soft” or human skills. It is not as simple as “learn to be on time.” Her process has trainees learning to identify their own strengths and values, the differences between poverty norms and the norms of a middle-class-focused workplace, the kinds of procedural self talk that supports problem solving, and the importance of negotiation as a conflict management tool. As Ireland observes, “a new employee who comes out of poverty into a workplace run on middle class norms has to know when to put aside their ability to throw down, and when to pick up the ability to negotiate.” 

Data undergirds all of this work. “One of the drivers of an institution's local employment strategy is the desire to be seen as fair and equitable, and data is the only thing that can help you do that.” Ireland builds in data-driven aspects to her training designs. Standardized assessments and structured interviews ranked on numerical scales are key parts of an interview and intake process. During a training program, routine skills assessments keep participants on track with meeting minimum scores in order to advance to the next level of the program.  

From the employer’s side, the needs assessment includes a data based assessment “from the top tier down to frontline staff.” Ireland’s process also calls for interviewing top performers to not-so-great performers to get a complete assessment of an organization’s needs. Although many organizations are reluctant to share their raw HR data with their workforce intermediary, that data is where important information resides that can illuminate turnover problems and make or break a local hire program, and opportunity is lost when it is not shared and analyzed.

About working in partnership with universities, Ireland reflects on the challenges of driving new strategy in a big organization. “Without a champion in that organization, it probably wouldn’t happen.“ But on the plus side, the quantity of aggregated jobs in an organization the size of a university makes it worthwhile to do local hiring and recruitment through a coordinated training program. “The beauty of working with universities is that they are like little cities with all kinds of jobs. I’ve trained IT professionals, security professionals, this type of clerk and that type of clerk” for universities. The range of job opportunities for a local hire strategy is reflected in a university’s broad set of functions. 

To a university that is beginning to develop its own strategy, Ireland says:

“Commit to hiring for jobs that people want. Typically an anchor will come out of the gate with a job they can’t fiil, with high turnover. That alone doesn’t work. We don’t start at the call center because nobody wants a call center job. Take some risk and identify jobs that have a career ladder, family-sustaining wages, and benefits.” 

Secondly, “there has to be quality. You have to employ quality folks. You have to invest in the work. You get what you pay for. Look for a high quality workforce training and access partner. Where academia can trip itself up is in the difference between theory and practice. You need people on the team who are able to implement and face the job seekers.” 


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