North Philly business owners say young Philadelphians are not ready for the workforce

Reconstruction of public education

“Let’s encourage these kids to be more independent, more responsible and work-ready so they’re not just sitting at home,” Smith said.

Smith, a mother of two black children, said she fears how her children move through the world alone and in groups, especially how they are perceived by the police.

She has already been hit twice in recent years while on the road, once after forgetting to turn on her husband’s headlights after a long day at the store in Philly, and once while driving a new luxury car from her suburban home on the freeway. Apparently, the police officer was suspicious of his wealth, he said.

Lakeisha King Smith, co-owner of Tru Site & Eric Holt Optical, on North 22nd Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

“I’m answering questions and my son is very uncomfortable in the passenger seat,” she said. “They asked me more questions about my car than my legal documents and it is very disturbing that you are leaning against my son’s passenger window in the process. I mean wow, that was really unprofessional.

But that doesn’t mean Smith has a negative opinion of the police record. In fact, he often has a good working relationship with the tattoo clerk who stops by the store.

Unfortunately, it was Smith’s first burglary in his 30 years on the job, which he said is highly unusual for the neighborhood in his experience. More generally, the public would keep a close eye on his shop even at night, he said.

Ken Curry was a peer counselor at a local high school decades before he became president of the North 22nd Street Business Association in North Philadelphia.

By chance, she ended up in the early childhood education business for two decades.

Curry said he doesn’t think the education system in Philadelphia is preparing young people for success.

“It’s broken and I don’t see anyone trying to fix it. We have been doing the same thing many times and expecting a different result,” he said. “I think we need a city- and state-funded education program where everyone is treated equally and has equal access to resources and educational materials to succeed.”

Curry said he’s not convinced by the year-round school concept — which has been floated by some mayoral candidates — and would prefer to see a stronger vocational education network with apprenticeships at local businesses.

“If you’re going to keep doing the same thing, it doesn’t mean much. “You’ve only been doing it for two months,” he said. “It’s pretty hot to go to school in the summer when many of our schools don’t have air conditioning.”

He said he would like to see more building arts taught at the school.

“Now we have a shortage of those things,” he said. “Technology and the service economy are easy to move past, but there are still things you can never get away from. We are always going to buy a house. But who will build those houses? When you have an electrical problem, who will come and fix it? Who will do your plumbing?”

Eric Holt Optical sign
Tru Site & Eric Holt Optical on North 22nd Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

Training future entrepreneurs

A graduate of Dobbin High School, known in the community as a historic vocational school, he is also an entrepreneur in the local community.

Tameka Montgomery is in her 30s, grew up in the neighborhood and attended Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School.

After graduation, he attended community college. Then he got a job working with people with physical and mental disabilities. He worked in this career for almost ten years.

“The money was very good, so I kind of fell off in college and got back up as I got older,” said Montgomery, who has yet to complete an associate’s program in technology and business.

But everything changed during the coronavirus pandemic. She worked in the emergency room and contracted COVID-19. He could not work for a month and had no income. Again, she was told she did not qualify for government food assistance programs because she earned too much in her previous salary.

“I couldn’t sleep at midnight. I was looking at stuff on YouTube and I came across candles,” he said, sitting in his shop making candles. “I bought three candle making kits and it was so easy for me. It was like cooking. It’s therapeutic for me. Making candles smells so good and is so calming. I’ll play jazz, it’s just soothing for me.”

A boxer by training, Montgomery wore a baseball cap, jeans and fresh, colorful sneakers.

He still wants to complete his degree, so he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a reservist.

“I never wanted to take out too many loans for school,” he said, “My [community college] The student loan only ended up being $6,000, but came out to $13,000 with all interest and stuff. So I was kind of discouraged to go back, but then I contacted the Air Force.

He said there’s a disconnect when things go online, or pop-up opportunities like the West Philly-based Enterprise Center’s Biz on Wheels program, where a mobile bus stops in the corridor offering resources to small business owners.

“We need a physical resource center. Something as simple as a person walking in and saying, “Hey, my son is being bullied at school, I need help.” Hey, my daughter isn’t doing well at home, she’s getting out of control. I need all of you to help him,” she said.

Montgomery said she would like to see more paid apprenticeship opportunities for high school students.

“They need more co-op programs [in high school] So they can start gaining experience,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind hiring two or three kids – they make candles. Helping me with admin work, putting labels on things.”

But he currently does not have the money to pay the workers completely out of pocket.

“This will be a good thing. But you know, you have to pay them. Or the school can. If the city says, if they come to school and don’t miss a day, maintain their GPA, we’ll pay you to go to work down the street. It’s an incentive that kids want to work for,” he said.

Barber Fred Cerrome Hill remembers a time when trades were more common in schools.

“There used to be a plumbing school and an electrical program. “It wasn’t that much money to get into these classes,” he said. “Then get a skill and get a job somewhere and have those skill sets, but they don’t have them anymore. For me, this means lowering the society.”

Fred Hill poses with a hair clipper in front of his shop.
Barber Fred Cerrome Hill outside Hair Connections on North 22nd Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

According to him, the lack of options for young residents is a problem.

“So you have a lot of people in their 20s who aren’t trying to do anything with their lives,” he said. “They do nothing in their 30s and achieve nothing in their 40s. Therefore, they cannot provide for their families. [Education] This is what separates entrepreneurs from individuals.”

Instead of waiting for the city or school system to act, Hill offers apprenticeships at his store.

“We have people who come in to start out who don’t even know how to cut, but they’ve been around long enough and they’re trained,” he said. “They are trained to become full-fledged hairdressers and be able to work and provide for their families for the rest of their lives. Yes, especially for individuals [formerly] is in prison.”

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