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Briggs: What Seattle Has Taught Us About Wealth Creation

Bringing technology jobs to Philadelphia is not enough.  True wage security comes with providing balanced skills—technical and financial literacy skills—to all.


On my flight to Seattle to attend GPLEX, I reviewed my Briefing Book, which provided statistics on median income and employment. When I saw this graphic below, I become angry... and felt helpless.    We know Philadelphia is already the poorest large city in the country.  Like all Philadelphians, I hear from civic leaders about progress: the jobs to be created around Amazon HQ2, the cranes in the sky, escalating commercial leasing rates.  I kept asking myself:  Shouldn’t combatting poverty be the priority issue for our city? What resources can I bring to the table to help reduce poverty to make Philadelphia truly world class?


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We learned that while the poverty level seems manageable in Seattle, the disparity between median income of $71,000 and the poverty median of $25,000 was growing rapidly even as job numbers swelled.  (One official cited a hiring rate of 1000 jobs per day!)  In other words, the poor in Seattle were getting even further behind even as Seattle was continuing its nearly unstoppable population and job growth. Seattle’s poor AND middle class are priced out of homes in the market.  The median home price in Seattle is $730,000.  Given a zoning code that rejects density, multifamily zoning only accounts for 7% of the land available for construction in Seattle.


The reality to me is stark.  Jobs in the sector that provided barely enough income to survive on, even if you are fortunate enough to land at Amazon at $15/hr.  How do Seattle citizens in even the median tax bracket (or worse poor) build equity and a financial status for a home?


GPLEXers, myself included, held out hope for the Apprenti model as presented by Jennifer Carlson of the Washington Technology Industry Association Workforce Institute. Apprenti's results are impressive.  The program recruits existing workers (median ages 28-30) with an average salary of $28,000-$30,000.  If accepted as an apprentice at a tech company, a worker's average salary is $51,000.  If he or she lands a job after the apprenticeship, the average salary is $71,000. Is it enough to be financially secure to build software engineering skills?  These skills can’t help a person save for a home, a car, retirement savings or to balance a checkbook.


Then there is the story of Starbucks.  Rodney Hines, Director of Social Impact at Starbucks, introduced us to the concept of community stores including one in West Philly.  The group was excited at the concept of a new store.  I personally wondered if Starbucks was doing enough.


I asked Rodney how Starbucks was ensuring the employees has a plan to build wealth.  Why not consider a franchise model like Dunkin’ Donuts where an employee can own his or her store under the Starbucks brand?  His answer was:  Starbucks’ focus was on financial education; making sure the person had the ability to manage his or her own money and then he or she could look to own a store.  In Starbucks’ mind, the job skills of a barista are a good start. He is right. We need to push harder, though, to advance entry level employees to the next level.


What did Seattle teach me?  First, that securing high paying jobs in a city is not enough.  Second, Seattle’s experience caused me to critically evaluate whether our schools ought to support financial literacy standards. 


While those who work in education are the best to show us how financial literacy can be taught, I offer my experience as a banker to be a resource for those educational institutions which believe in this concept.

I do this though:  This can’t be a ‘one-and-done’ financial literacy class.  Our business and civic leadership must build a comprehensive plan available for the full year.  Should our School District leaders call upon the city and state to require financial literacy as part of high school curriculum?    Should banks expand the bank at work to local schools around the branches to help teachers and children learn about financial literacy programs?


I look forward to participating with our civic and business leaders in making a robust and viable financial literacy program a reality in Philadelphia.


Amara M. Briggs is Senior VP at Wells Fargo & Company