Mentoring, Arts Education Help Future Workers Find Focus

At Staffing World 2014, industry commits to closing skills gap

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Oct 16, 2014
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Bill Strickland knows what it’s like to be written off by society. But that hasn’t stopped him from achieving his goals and helping others to do the same. Strickland shared his story of growing up poor on the north side of Pittsburgh, with Staffing World 2014 conference attendees. The conference, held Oct. 13-15 near Washington, D.C., was sponsored by the American Staffing Association (ASA).

Uninterested in his education, Strickland faced an uncertain future with few opportunities—until a high school art teacher saw his potential, mentored him and urged him to attend college. Following graduation, Strickland enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh on provisional status, where he eventually graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in American history and foreign relations.

"Commit yourself to a passion that moves you," said Strickland, now president and chief executive officer of Manchester Bidwell Corp., explaining that his organization is “in the business of recovering people who’ve been left behind.” The nonprofit offers mentorships, art classes, career training and other support for inner-city public school students and adults who would benefit.

Walking the Talk Strickland told the crowd of nearly 1,600 that he envisions a template for social change that addresses the barriers the poor face, and he has devoted his life’s work to forming relationships with businesses, government officials and individuals who share his vision. “Beautiful environments bear beautiful children,” he said, noting that he uses art as his ticket into students’ minds. “You open up imagination, you open up learning. An environment that provides nutritious food, beautiful art, lighting” promotes the kind of learning that kills “cancer of the spirit.”

While attending college, Strickland founded Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) to bring arts education and mentorship to inner-city youth in the neighborhood where he grew up, and where he still lives now. The MCG Youth & Arts and the MCG Jazz programs serve public school students by offering courses in ceramics, design art, digital imaging and photography. “We sell our work to support the center,” he noted. In 1972, he assumed leadership of a struggling building trade school, now called Bidwell Training Center, located near MCG. “The first thing I did was go buy the paint to clean up the dilapidated building,” he said, adding that any employee who didn’t show up to help was fired. “Only had one person who didn’t show.”Over the years, the center has become a nationally accredited and state-licensed adult career training institution that offers associate’s degree and diploma programs in fields ranging from the culinary arts to horticulture to medical technology.

Strickland also founded the National Center for Arts & Technology and created similar affiliated centers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Mich., and San Francisco. And there are plans for continued growth in other cities in the U.S. and abroad to provide training centers that serve as a “safe space in which students, young and older, can feel comfortable learning.” It’s easy to see when centers start to have a positive effect on the kids, he said: “They start pulling their pants up.”

Manchester Bidwell Corp. community centers for job training and the arts have earned Strickland a spot on the White House Council for Community Solutions. His book, Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary (Doubleday, 2007), addresses leadership and the business of social change. Urging conference attendees to get involved in business and education partnerships, Strickland said, “People are born into this world as assets, not as liabilities, and the environment they live in drives their behavior. We have people walking the streets with diplomas who can’t read those diplomas. This is unacceptable and has to stop. We’ve got to change the conversation [about what should be done] for this country to survive.”

Stepping Up At the Staffing World 2014 conference, staffing industry leaders challenged attendees to commit to reducing the country’s worker skills gap. ASA President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Wahlquist said during his conference opening remarks that the organization continues to hear from members about the skills gap and the resulting difficulty in finding qualified entry-level candidates. To help address the problem, he announced that the association will partner with Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), a nonprofit organization that works to connect employers with disadvantaged young people who have mastered the JAG employability skills curriculum.

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/content manager for SHRM.

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