Workforce Development Training: What’s Working?


Pieta Blakely 0:02
Many organizations are struggling to find enough workers. Today, we’re going to talk about innovative solutions to prepare the workforce. Serial social entrepreneur, Charles Wilson joins us to discuss some of his innovations and share his perspectives on effective workforce development.

CTMM 0:20

Pieta Blakely 0:47
Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds, a 30-minute conversation with leaders of mission-based organizations. I want to welcome my listeners across the United States and from Australia and around the globe. While you’re here, introduce ours yourself in the comments and let us know your name and where you’re joining from. I’m Pieta Blakely, this is Coffee Time with Masterminds, and I’m joined today by my co-host Cynthia Rojas. Good morning, Cynthia, how are you?

Cynthia Rojas 1:17
Hi, Pieta. Hi, everyone. Oh my God, another blunder.

Pieta Blakely 1:29
It’s Friday. I’m good. Today we’re going to be joined by my friend, Charles. Charles Wilson is the founder of CW Consulting Group where he focuses on providing diverse workforce development solutions in training preparation and staffing. Charles is a U.S Navy Nuclear Submarine Veteran and he consults on workforce issues in the construction, energy and utility industries. Good morning, Charles, how are you?

Charles Wilson 1:56
Good morning. I’m very happy to be here.

Pieta Blakely 1:58
Thank you for joining us today. You provide some very particular kinds of workforce development consulting around specific Industries. What inspired you to focus on these industries?

Charles Wilson 2:16
Well, my background, as you shared is in nuclear operations, where that skill set was really introduced to me. I had no idea that energy was a viable option for a career. I’m from the south side of Chicago, born and raised there to a single mother, and two younger siblings. We grew up in an impoverished environment. To also, sort of littered with violence in Chicago as a young man. There weren’t many things that I would be really thinking about post High School outside of not being dead, honestly. When I graduated without really having a plan. A friend of mine joined the navy, and he needed another person to join with him in order to get a higher rank, so I was a referral. He called me and I was myself about to become a teenage father at the age of 17. He introduced me to the path. I took a test, passed the test, was then selected to be part of the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, and then volunteered myself to be on submarines, a piece of metal that’s meant to sink. What really happened was that I found myself having benefits. I had a primary care physician. I had a check that was there, faithfully, every two weeks and I had insurance. I had never known what any of that was, the emergency room was my problem position, but energy did that to me, being exposed to that sector. So, when I got out of the Navy after six years, I came back to Chicago and filed for a job at one of the nuclear power plants. Commercial Nuclear Power Plants, right outside of Chicago. What I found was a lack of diversity within the workforce. I was thinking just to help the custodial groups, the administrative groups, but none in the technical or the managerial ranks, and that for me, was problematic. I knew, for me, I’m like, wow, if I’d known this was a path earlier, it would have helped a guy with some decisions that I made. Because I lived very much like there was no tomorrow, what’s the point it was a hopeless situation. I feel like when you have something to lose it impacts the way you make decisions. And so, the idea of having a six-figure income at the age of 23, 24, 25, and no debt. I’m like, I wish everyone knew this and so I made it my business to snitch, to go back and just tell people about the fact.

Pieta Blakely 5:27
This is so important. I think we’ve had a policy in the United States for the last several years of four-year college for everybody. We denigrate other options and here is an amazing career that does not require a four-year degree, right?

Charles Wilson 5:50
That’s correct

Pieta Blakely 5:52
Salary, no debt. You know, we’re not paying enough attention to these opportunities, I think.

Charles Wilson 5:58
I’m in agreement. I’m such a proponent and I move as much transparency. As I shared, I was a teenage father; my oldest and firstborn is a daughter. She’s 25, Aaron Wilson, and behind her is my son, Will. She had a four-year full ride academic scholarship to Howard University; since she graduated, she had several other options, as well. My son was a year behind her and he had a partial scholarship and he intended to go to Arizona State University. After about the first semester at Howard University, for some reason, my daughter was taking off seven classes. She burned out, as you would expect.

Pieta Blakely 6:48
Which is not that unusual a story for first generation students to not have realistic understandings of their ability or their capacity, right.

Charles Wilson 7:05
There should be some guidance. I mean, I felt that she should add a little bit, but it’s to at least let her know what she was getting herself into but nevertheless did a hard reset. She came up to me, “Dad, don’t know what to do. I’m drowning.” I said, you consider nuclear operations on a commercial side. She said, I have, but not to the extent that we’re talking now. My son still been on going to Arizona State for the college experience to the tune of the remaining thirty thousand dollars that would have had to go into that. I asked both of them. I said, there’s a two-year school in Mexico, Missouri called, State Technical College in Missouri. It’s a two-year program in Nuclear Engineering Technology. And if you go there, you can bypass the six years in the Navy that I had to do. Because there’ll be a direct pipeline to the commercial nuclear industry, well, they both did. She left after that, first year; he graduated that next year. They got a home that they rented down there and were the first graduating black brother and sister combination at that school, in its history. I can tell you now, with them having both entered the industry in 2019 and 2020. Son and daughter and people have no chat and he’s going to kill me for saying this. But now, he made 172 000 last year. My daughter is on track this year; she’s going to be at least 150 000. Neither of them had debts. Both of them 700 Plus credit scores. He’s a car owner, she has an apartment but is deciding if she wants a home, it’s really her. Why I’m saying to you that I believe this has been something that has changed absolutely, trajectory, given my life. It has been a generational that allows them to have options.

Pieta Blakely 9:06
So, you also do some consulting around construction trades. Is that right?
tell us about some of the opportunities in that field.

Charles Wilson 9:20
Yeah, I sort of grouped the skilled trades under one umbrella. I started an apprenticeship school. I was accredited through an organization called the National Center for Construction Education and Research or NCCER. Having gone through that process of becoming credentialed and certified, myself, as a master trainer and what we call the sponsor representative or training director. Through them, I was able to have the ability to open up apprenticeship schools on apprenticeship. For me, it’s about take-it to the people. Take it to the communities that have the greatest need and remove barriers with sometimes, trades or equipment. Transportation or reliable transportation, or you have some Child Care concerns that you don’t allow, when you are trying to work two jobs. In 2020, my wife and I, when we should move here, from Chicago to Richmond in March 2020. In December 2020, I had this hair brain-bright idea that I would leverage that accreditation. During a pandemic, I called in a favor with a friend who was a master 25-year carpenter, and he moved here from Chicago to launch this cohort that we did with carpentry. The school itself is called, the Legacy Builders STEM Academy. So, that’s what STEM stands for with my Academy versus the introduction of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; all of these are careers. All those, under that umbrella, from carpenter to plumber to electrician to overhead line electrician to manufacturing. All these fields, they’re never going to expire, never going to go away. It’s not going to be true. You’re going to always go throughout the US and internationally and find the need for those skill sets. Meaning, that you’ll have a way to earn, not only a livable wage but an above wage, and so that’s what all of those are.

Pieta Blakely 12:29
Are there other industries or fields that you think need this kind of approach? You just be thinking a little more creatively, and thinking about, how do we get people who’ve historically not had as much economic opportunity into these high need, really great living wage fields.

Charles Wilson 13:57
I think, there needs to be more emphasis put on it. I’ll put the umbrella of IT from the standpoint of Amazon and what they do with their web-based services AWS Salesforce Google. They have certification programs that cost zero or maybe a couple of hundred dollars, and you’re learning how to navigate and work on these platforms. It’s a certification that lasts maybe six months, but their starting wages are at sixty and seventy thousand dollars. I believe that’s an area of attention. Cyber security is another field that is not going anywhere and is woefully underrepresented and has a significant need for help. So, I believe those are a couple of fields and believe it or not, I believe the hospitality industry, from line cooks to hotel management. I would say those are also some fields because it’s gotten competitive.

Pieta Blakely 14:29
The hospitality is absolutely one of the fields that is having the hardest time staffing. It was the one that during the pandemic, everybody lost their jobs because so many of these organizations shut down and events weren’t happening. It’s one of these fields where you have to physically go to work and a lot of the jobs are not all that well paid. But there is real opportunity in some of these big hotel chains and organizations like that immense opportunity.

Charles Wilson 15:03
Yeah, I mean, we’re now talking about a bidding war for talent. They’re valued much more since the pandemic occurred. How much service engine really needed. You can’t put down your nose at these individuals who work in the area and I can attest to that I have a restaurant as well. A restaurant and a whiskey cigar lounge. I can say to you that I never tried to cut corners in the compensation for the people that make up the staff and the team. They are highly valued and they make people’s lives feel a little bit better for that small window of time, but you have to compensate for them. I believe now they have really that interest has really come to understand their worth and they’re not taking 12 an hour and I take in five dollars an hour. I’m not doing it. You have to come up with it, so those are some Industries.

Cynthia Rojas 16:00
I have a question. You alluded to it. Your children are immensely lucky to have you. You were the wealth of information that has transformed or led them to an amazing pathway. What I find is that people don’t know how to access so it’s less about will. There is a desire for a better life. There is a yearning to get out of what might be perceived as the path was supposed to follow so that we can follow a better path. How do people hear about this. Where can our regular Joe check this out. I have never heard of commercial nuclear plants in my life. I don’t even know what that means.

Pieta Blakely 16:58
I wish somebody had talked to me about that.

Cynthia Rojas 17:04
Yeah. How do people hear about this.

Charles Wilson 17:13
I mispronouncing nuclear when I was in Chicago. I mean, and outside of a bomb. I had no understanding of what the term meant and how my everyday life is. It really was a happenstance, and one of the things I believe to your point is there is a lack of awareness, and then after awareness there’s a lack of access. I’ll share this platform, and though it may not be you may not know something as direct as these platforms like this. Where you have one more person that just found out about it, guess what they’re going to do, snitch. I had the pleasure in 2014 to be invited to speak before the US House of Representatives energy and power subcommittee. It was by the invitation of then Vice Chair, Congressman Bobby Rush, who I believe now is the chair of that committee. They were crafting a 21st century workforce bill that was intended to bring more minorities into energy and manufacturing careers. That testimony catapulted and created a platform for me that I hadn’t even thought of before because now I had interest from multiple congressional members, interest groups. About a year before, that was in high school, I had a more social emotional learning program, which was the intent to make people aware at first. Now, it then we’ll say okay, now the access, so I was working on the decision-making process of our young people. If you do this, here are the consequences, how do you think critically. What’s the process of thinking critically and went into about 50 different high schools and taught this curriculum that I created to 4 000 young people. Just two days ago, I got a text message because I never changed my phone number, because I wanted them to always access me when they got older, and hey, Mr. Wilson. Ironically, his last name was Wilson. I’m here with Raheem, who was another person that was on the program; we’re in Florida right now restoring power after the hurricane Ina. They’re right now making 130 per hour for 24 hours a day. They’re like, bro we need to talk because we just continue to be thinking about it. We can’t believe that you made us aware of these years ago. I then started doing youth conferences within some of the larger markets Chicago, really, Baltimore Atlantic City Detroit. Where I brought high school students from around that school district to a space where they were introduced. That began its own awareness, and that ripple effect happens. So, I think it’s a big mountain; it’s a big burger and you take it one bite at a time. I believe each life we touch is another person someone. I have a cousin right now for your school in Chicago, now my son, and guess what that boy is going to do, going to talk to his friends. So, I think that’s really all we can do is touch who we can. Now that you’re aware, you then go tell someone else who then ultimately tells. And then maybe you get that one platform, that bullhorn, that amplifies that voice and you share the message, but it’s all these little steps. I believe. Cynthia.

Pieta Blakely 21:15
What is the role of post-secondary education here. So, colleges like your son and daughter went to that had a two-year program. Are there enough of those two-year programs? Should more colleges and universities and community colleges be offering this?

Charles Wilson 21:38
Yeah, I believe we have to get into some sense of fast tracking. Meaning not running the process but taking away the fluff. I will not judge people’s career choice or the degree program they may go after. I’m a numbers person. I’m a science person, so I just really focus on what makes sense. I need that degree to equate to real dollars not the prestige of the paper or the document that’s sitting in your study or you can plaster on your LinkedIn profile or whatever. It has to lead to success so I’m sharing as much as I can respect. I don’t even want to do it. I’m not going to say it.

Pieta Blakely 22:39
We’re not anti-degree here.

Charles Wilson 22:44
That’s what I’m saying. I want to be clear I’m not that. I’m just sharing that the programs and the classes that they are need to benefit the individuals after graduation with real income. If it’s not going to do that, we have to make a real assessment of that because my feeling, and this is truly my opinion. My feeling is that we’re just propping up the institution, as a whole. It’s a machine and there’s nothing you can really do sometimes in the machine. We saw the pandemic really expose a lot of this is why we’re seeing such pushback. You saw the pandemic expose a lot of this where you start to say, why am I actually here. Why am I paying this much money, is it that I really can’t accomplish this at home or do we really need to have this happen. We sit in the workplace, right. These meetings where you have to be physically present. All of a sudden, this is okay to do. Wait a minute, we could have been always doing this right.

Pieta Blakely 23:55
And wait a minute, this could have been asynchronous and hang on. Why are universities still pretending that undergrads don’t have jobs and just need to go to school all the time. When the reality is a lot of them have to work full-time and need their education to be a lot more flexible.

Charles Wilson 24:18
So, I say that I believe it’s a matter of just, I call it the Matrix. It’s hard when your brain is set on it being a certain way and especially if it impacts your right because we are talking about professors, tenured. We’re talking about people. They went to school to come back and work in Academia. It directly impacts their own livelihoods, so you have to have understanding, not for you but in general. That there’s a bias in some of the things, but I believe you also saw entrepreneurship within even the college realm, as they had to get nimble; they had to pivot. Make it worth the money. I think that it’s about willingness; it has to be that.

Pieta Blakely 25:10
I think, students and families are becoming a lot more cautious about investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and taking on a whole lot of debt
for these degrees that don’t guarantee anything financially, right.

Charles Wilson 25:27
Yeah, I like the other part that I’ll say again in this sort of space of. If you make certain moves and pivot, when necessary, both the companies my daughter and son are at. And when I was within the industry, that’s tuition reimbursement. In most cases, we’re up-cover the call or if they and when they decide to complete whatever degree program. Again, that needs to make sense that leads to for some reason them elevating within the industry, within that company. They pay for it; the companies will. Yet again, they’ll have no debt while doing that. I think that’s one of the things we want to make sure we’re educating our people that are looking at post-secondary. Make it make sense to find some of those benefits that these companies that you do get into after you maybe take that two-year certification or two-year degree program or technical program. Look for those companies that will help you maintain a good quality of life by offsetting some of those costs.

Pieta Blakely 26:35
Yeah, and his was so typical. I was saying to somebody recently, my first job in financial services. This was an entry-level job, which meant we were expected to know nothing. They asked me in my interview, do you know what a mutual fund is. And then they hired me, and they put me in school for six weeks like they paid me to sit in a classroom for six weeks and learn how to do my job, and then they paid for my first master’s degree, and that would be fairly typical. Companies now are just not really doing that. There’s a lot less investment and I’m hearing people say, an entry-level job is for somebody with a year or two of experience. They don’t even want to hire beginners and cultivate them. I feel supporters have got to get realistic.

Charles Wilson 27:30
It has to be intentional. They have to think about the profit. I think there’s some fear that’s there sometimes with, if I take this investment, am I going to see in the big scheme of things you’re helping society. I know that the big concept and it’s like, but that doesn’t impact me, well, it does.

Pieta Blakely 27:59
It does

Charles Wilson 28:00
Yeah, and a reputation, and in the big universe we’re in it does come back. There is a positive that you can extract from it to attribute in that sort of sense of charity and love. Overall, I believe that mindset has to change; it just has to change.

Pieta Blakely 28:27
Yeah. I think it’s a contribution to the field and also a recognition that your firm exists in this ecosystem. And if you’re not cultivating your own workforce, you’re depending on somebody else to do it for you. You can’t have the same expectations about the quality or the quantity if you’re not contributing.

Charles Wilson 28:53
I’m saying it so I’ll get it astronomical like, we’re consultants, right. You’re going to pay the premium someone who has learned and as the scars we’ve got. You’re going to pay for that knowledge that comes from the type of experience that we have. So, it’s either you’re going to pay it now; you’re going to pay it later.

Pieta Blakely 29:20
Yeah, I love that you’re going to pay it now; you’re going to pay it later.

Cynthia Rojas 29:25
Yeah, I know we’re almost out of time, but I love that, Charles, this idea that if you’re not cultivating your own workforce, someone else will. We’re going to be having a series of conversations about the workforce. I think that statement is putting the onus on the employer. Look at what you’re doing and what you’re allowing to have happen. And chances are, employers who are not taking care of their staff and training them. Really giving them the skills that they could use, are going to lose them to other people who will.

Charles Wilson 30:04
And those people who invest, if we believe it or not, there is a loyalty that’s fair. When you’re the reason that I have come out of a situation and it’s because you cared beyond that moment, you see retention go up. And at a minimum, you’ll see them come back or they’ll do referrals for you. They’ll send people your way so I’ve watched it happen sometimes. The loss, the risk of losing that one person is much lower than what could be gained if you invested in them, in my opinion. History has shown my experience has been so.

Pieta Blakely 30:46
Okay, thank you so much for making time to join us this morning.

Charles Wilson 30:53
Very much, thanks for the invitation and I look forward to joining you all again in the future and you’re always going to have more support.

Pieta Blakely 31:02
Thank you. Have a great weekend, everybody.

Cynthia Rojas 31:05

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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