Insider: Philadelphia’s Old Guard Freezes Out Young Professionals

The informal networks that really matter are closed to newcomers and millennials, and that's crippling the city's dynamism and economy.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.) 

There’s an old Philadelphia adage that loosely goes like this:

“This is a town run by 100 people with two jobs: the first is keeping the other 99 in power. And the second, is keeping everybody else out.” If this doesn’t resonate with you, take a long hard look in the mirror, because you’re probably one of those 100. When upstarts attempt to challenge or crack into this system they are usually met with a combination of curiosity, scorn and sometimes aggression: “How dare you work so hard at trying to disrupt a system we’ve worked so hard to keep you out of?”

Philadelphia is a city that’s getting younger by the day, but in many respects is still an old school town with old school thinking.

During the mayoral primary there was a lot of talk about how to get young people involved in Philadelphia, and how to get them to make the city their permanent home. There were some good ideas — and some tone-deaf pandering. Of course the brain drain conversation isn’t exactly new. Doug Oliver eloquently put it this way: “Young people date Philly and marry someplace else.” That’s the clean version anyways.

The big, obvious reasons why young people don’t stay here are easy enough to understand — jobs and schools. When they can’t find jobs, they leave. And too many of those that do find a job stay only until they reach the age where they want to have children. Not everyone has the desire or wherewithal to navigate the labyrinth of the city’s charter and magnet schools.

But there’s a third reason why young people don’t stay in Philadelphia: lack of opportunities for professional career growth and development – a failure of Philadelphia to embrace, develop and mentor new generations of leaders. When younger people enter the workforce, they quickly see the entrenched networks that exist and realize if they want to “make it” and not wait forever, it is going to have to be somewhere else. When Campus Philly asked recent grads “Do you have the resources to build connections with regional employers” almost four out of 10 respondents said no.

The city recently and very quietly lost Drop Diagnostics to San Francisco. Ho-hum, never heard of them, no big deal right? Wrong. The ugly truth is that not all wage earners are equal. Young people who pay taxes and are less reliant on city services are exactly the type of people Philadelphia needs to attract and retain. Young entrepreneurs fit that model. What’s more, they build the businesses that hire more workers.

Let me back it up a bit by saying for the record that I love my city. Philadelphia is one of the biggest small towns in America. But what makes it great also makes it challenging. There’s a provincialism to the city’s business culture, which is dominated by a lot of figures born and raised in or around Philadelphia. Those old guard Philadelphians are fiercely protective of their professional network. Some selfishly guard them to the death. And when they pass, we lose not only their talent, but their connections and ideas — which are worth untold amounts to our local economy.

By failing to develop young talent, by failing to make their networks accessible to newcomers, this city’s old guard is costing Philadelphia economically. Right now there’s no middle ground in our workforce. There are entry-level opportunities and a small, comfy, cloistered elite at the top. This is true across a wide swath of industries in both the private and public sectors. The problem is even more pronounced in local politics, but that’s another argument for another day.

Other cities like New York, DC and Los Angeles have many more transplanted citizens, so networks are more fluid and more open to outsiders. Subsequently, younger people have an easier time building their own networks and contacts. When you hear Drop Diagnostics principals say about San Francisco “doors seem to open faster” how many of you thought, “yeah, that just feels like it’s true.” I know I did.

By now, I hope you’re thinking ‘yeah, this is a significant and costly problem but what can we really do about it?’ Glad you asked. There’s no need to form a commission or a blue-ribbon panel. If you’re in that group of senior executives with 25-30 years of work experience and you have no succession plan, you’re part of the problem. If you’re at the peak of your career, and you haven’t help develop the  careers of two to four younger workers, that’s problematic. Find someone you can develop and mentor, if for no other reason than it helps to promote your own legacy. I’m sure legacy self-promotion is something we can all agree on. The bottom line is this: we have to create an environment that encourages young people to build their careers here. The future of our city depends on it.

Mustafa Rashed is the President & CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a government relations, advocacy and consulting firm. He is Chairman of Friends of Doug Oliver, PAC, and he was the campaign manager of Oliver’s recent mayoral run.