North Philly business owners say young Philadelphians aren’t ready for the workforce

Small business owners cite a lack of support for the city’s next generation of workers, with concerns over the public education system and scarce apprenticeship opportunities.

Lakeisha King Smith smiling, and standing behind the counter in her shop.

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

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Instead of staying broad, this news series goes deep on three topics with small business owners who are the eyes on the street each day on one block: public safety, city services, and workforce development.

This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.

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About 30 years ago, Lakeisha King Smith’s father opened an optometry practice on the 22nd Street commercial corridor between Lehigh and Allegheny avenues.

Over the years, Smith’s father even taught optical classes at the Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School on Lehigh Avenue several blocks south from his shop.

Smith is now administrator of Three Kings Inc., which owns Eric Holt Optical, her family’s business. She and her brother are co-owners of the optometry practice that serves several generations of customers.

And while Smith — who grew up in the suburb of Yeadon — doesn’t formally volunteer at the vocational school, she mentors countless neighborhood kids who frequently pop in while navigating what is often chaos around them.

“I have kids that come here that just wander the streets sometimes after school,” she said on a recent weekday sitting in the optometrist office. “I say, ‘Hey, what are you doing out there? What’s going on?’ And they come in and they become like my lifelong little buddies.”

Smith, now in her early 40s, wore a tan sweater dress and tall skinny heels as she sat on a stool, taking a break from her usual post behind the counter with customers.

One of her own sons is in college to become the resident optometrist at the practice to keep the business in the family.

“My children are like, ‘Oh, so you adopted more kids.’ They literally come in here and walk straight back to where I sit in my office,” she said. “Sometimes they’re enraged, things have happened and I’m like, ‘Calm down.’ I talk to them, give them advice. My kids are like, ‘You just become like the community mom.’”

Smith said she’s noticed a big difference in the educational opportunities for and workforce readiness of her own children, who grew up in the suburbs compared to the immediate community where she spends most of her work days.

For years, she’s participated in a citywide summer program for teenagers of legal work age.

“We take two or three kids in and we let them work here,” she said. “We teach them business etiquette. How to answer the phone, how to dress. I really enjoy it. I met some kids that have never had a job before and are soft spoken and shy or rough around the edges and we took them in and they love to be here. It really makes the difference because we give them the confidence that it takes for them to go out and be productive in the workforce.”

But that program only runs for a few weeks in the summer, and some years there isn’t funding to make it happen.

“They don’t even do it some years,” she said. “Some years by the time it’s organized there’s only three weeks left in the program and they don’t get the full experience. Let’s start doing that year-round.”

These small businesses and their successes or struggles are a microcosm for the city. These countless entrepreneurs are also the foundation of the city of Philadelphia’s tax base. As stakeholders in the positive or negative outcomes stemming from decisions made inside City Hall, WHYY News interviewed small business owners about their vision and ideas to improve the city’s workforce development efforts.

Retrofitting public education

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

As the mother of two Black children, Smith said she’s terrified about how her kids are perceived moving through the world alone and in groups — especially by police.

She’s already been pulled over twice in recent years during her commute, once after forgetting to turn on her husband’s car headlights after a long day at the store in Philly and once on the highway driving from her suburban home in a new luxury vehicle. It seemed like the police officer was suspicious of her wealth, she said.

Lakeisha King Smith in an examination room with eye testing equipment.
Lakeisha King Smith, co-owner of Tru Site & Eric Holt Optical on North 22nd Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I’m answering the questions and my son is so uncomfortable in the passenger seat,” she said. “They asked me more questions about my car than my legal documents and in the process you’re leaning into my son’s passenger window who you can see is highly uncomfortable. I was like wow, that was really unprofessional.”

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But that doesn’t mean Smith harbors a negative sentiment about police writ large. In fact, she has a good working relationship with the beat officer who frequently stops in the shop.

Unfortunately, Smith had a smash-and-grab theft for the first time in 30 years of business, which she says is extremely unusual for the neighborhood in her experience. What’s more common is that the community will keep a close eye on her shop, even at night, she said.

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

Serendipitously, he went into the early childhood education business for two decades.

Curry said he doesn’t think the education system in Philadelphia sets youth up for success.

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

Curry said he’s not confident about the concept of year-round school — which has been floated by some candidates running for mayor — and would prefer to see a more robust vocational training network with apprenticeships at local businesses.

“If you’re going to continue to do the same thing, it doesn’t mean much. You’re just doing it for two more months,” he said. “It’s pretty hot going to school in the summer when you don’t have air conditioning in a lot of our schools.”

He said he wanted to see more building trades taught in school.

“Now we have a shortage of those things,” he said. “It’s easy to jump on a bandwagon of technology and the service economy, but there’s still things that you’re never going to get away from. We’re always going to buy homes. So who’s going to wire those homes? Who’s going to come fix it when you have an electrical problem? Who’s going to take care of your plumbing?”

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

Training future entrepreneurs

A graduate from Dobbin’s High School —  known in the community as a historic vocational public school — 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, she enrolled in community college. Then she got a job working with people with physical and mental disabilities. She worked in that career for about a decade.

“The money was super good so I kind of fell off in college a bit and then went back as I got older,” Montgomery said about not yet completing her associates program in technology and business.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, everything changed. She was working in an emergency room and contracted COVID-19. She was unable to work for a month and didn’t have any income. Still, she was told she didn’t qualify for government food assistance programs because she earned too much money in her previous paychecks.

“I couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night. I was up on YouTube looking at stuff and came across candles,” she said, sitting in her shop busily making candles. “I bought three candle-making kits and it was really easy for me. It was like cooking. It’s therapeutic for me. Making candles smells so good and it’s so calm. I’ll put on jazz music, it’s just soothing for me.”

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

She still wants to complete her degree, so she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a reserve member.

“I never really wanted to take out a lot of loans for school,” she said, “My [community college] student loan ended up only being like, $6,000, but with all the interest and stuff it came out to be like $13,000. So I kind of got discouraged about going back, but then I got with the Air Force.”

She said there’s a disconnect when everything is online or there are only pop-up opportunities like the West Philly-based Enterprise Center’s Biz on Wheels program, where a mobile bus was parked on the corridor offering resources to small business owners.

“We need a physical resource center. Something as simple as a person walking in there saying, ‘Hey, my son is being bullied in school, I need help. Hey, my daughter is not doing well at home, she’s getting out of control. I need y’all to help me get her some help,’” she said.

Montgomery said she wants to see more paid apprenticeship opportunities for high schoolers.

“They need more co-op work programs [in high school] so they can start getting experience,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind hiring two or three kids — they come down here making candles. Helping me do admin work, put labels on stuff.”

But she doesn’t have the money to pay workers out of pocket entirely right now.

“That’ll be a good thing. But you know, you got to pay them. Or the school could. If the city said hey, if they came to school and didn’t miss no days, maintain their GPA we’ll pay you to go to work right there down the street. That’s the incentive that kids want to work for,” she said.

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

“They used to have the school for plumbing, the electrical program. It wasn’t a whole lot of money to get into these classes,” he said. “Then pick up a skill and get a job somewhere and have these skill sets but they don’t have it no more. To me, that’s kind of pulling down the community.”

Fred Hill posing with hair clippers in front of his shop.
Barber Fred Cerrome Hill outside his shop, Hair Connections, on North 22nd Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The dearth of options for young residents is an issue, he said.

“So you’ve got a lot of people that’s not really trying to do anything with their lives in their 20s,” he said. “They do nothing in their 30s and when they’re 40 they don’t have nothing accomplished. So they can’t provide for their families. [Education] is what makes entrepreneurs out of individuals.”

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

“We have people that come in to start off not even really knowing how to cut but just being around long enough and being trained,” he said. “They are being trained to becoming a full-fledged barber and be able to function and provide for their family for the rest of their lives. Yes, especially for individuals [formerly] incarcerated.”

Life literacy

Nasir Yard, owner of Phresh Prints Ink, runs a screen printing shop and has slowly expanded his business over the past few years.

Yard said he wants to see more education about taxes and financial literacy in schools — not just teaching for tests.

“Teaching people about credit,” he said. “Important things like taxes. I think that’s where it starts. We don’t have a lot of programs that’s teaching it, especially if it’s not in the schools.”

If there is a lack of educational foundation, adults have difficulty functioning in society, he said.

“So people are already adults and or maybe even already parents by the time they’re finally learning how to manage their credit,” he said.

Dave’s Meat Market co-owners Leonard Pell and his brother Richard see a steady flow of customers and focus on education for satisfied clients. The butcher shop sells spices and even fresh vegetables, which can be difficult to find in the community.

“We teach our customers how to cook,” said Leonard, who learned himself as a Boy Scout. “We will suggest how to cook and we have the ingredients to do it.”

Pell said that it’s difficult to find workers with the skills they need to succeed.

Leonard Pell posing in front of the deli counter in the market.
Butcher Leonard Pell runs Dave’s Meat Market in North Philadelphia on 22nd Street with his brother. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Day care centers, Pell said, are “one of the best things we have going on in Philadelphia right now.”

“They teach these kids before first grade, a lot of them can read and write. They’re very respectful of the environment,” he said. “This is probably the key to education. We have to educate people, especially our young, before they’re lost. Once you hit sixth or seventh grade, I think it’s a done deal.”

What about the concept of year-round school?

“I think it’d be a great plan. Keep them off the streets and have them learn something,” he said. “We see what the opposite did during the pandemic keeping them out of school. We’re dumber than ever.”

Independent pharmacy owner Ben Nachum said he supports public schools as a graduate of one in Philly.

“I’m all for education. I hate charter schools. I think charter schools play to testing and then kids are worse off,” he said. “I am the product of the Philadelphia public school system. I know how hard the public school system can be. I got bullied. I got picked on. I got beat up a number of times. Invest in public schools.”

Still, he doesn’t support the concept of school year-round, even as a father of a young child.

“Terrible idea. Kids are kids. They need a break,” he said. “The main reason people want all year-round school is the child care, you don’t have to worry about your kid being at home.”

Beyond that, he’d rather see high school start times be pushed back and younger children arrive earlier.
“The fact that high schoolers start early and little kids start later makes no sense,” he said.

This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.

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