Companies invest in Black employees through workforce development programs

MEETING OF THE MINDS—Janis Burley Wilson, President, August Wilson African American Cultural Center; Bruce Van Saun, Chairman and CEO, Citizens Financial Group; Esther L. Bush, former President and CEO, Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; Esther Mellinger Stief, Executive Director, Crossroads Foundation; and Robert Cherry, CEO of Partner4Work.

Corporations such as Citizens Financial Group are, in effect, saying now or never when it comes to properly preparing people with the skills needed to excel in today’s workforce.

Citizens’ CEO, Bruce Van Saun, sat on a panel with former Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh President/CEO Esther Bush, Partner4Work CEO Robert L. Cherry, Crossroads Foundation Executive Director Esther Mellinger Stief and August Wilson African American Cultural Center President/CEO Janis Burley Wilson to discuss its importance, and how corporations, the non-profit sector and educational institutions can unify for this common goal.

“We’re definitely seeing that as the labor market tightens, companies are reassessing the real skills that it actually takes to do the job as opposed to these thresholds they’ve had,” voiced Cherry, during the Oct. 25 session at the Benedum Center.


Cherry’s organization, Partner4Work, a workforce development stronghold in the Pittsburgh region, received a $45,000 grant from Citizens for its Bankworks program. It’s an eight-week training program that helps provide a gateway for people to obtain entry-level employment opportunities in the banking arena. Some Citizens employees provide instruction and help trainees with their job-interview skills, and Citizens said it’s hired several people who have completed the Bankworks program.

“We’re at a unique moment in time,” Van Saun said. “…The need for more opportunities, the need for more social justice and equality of opportunity across all races…there’s a need for companies to move this up on their agendas. I’m excited that the CEOs I associate with all get it. I don’t see this slipping back down the list of priorities.”

In the past, Cherry said, corporations would have a rosy list of credentials that a person must carry to attain certain positions—maybe a four-year college degree, or a two-year associate’s with additional certifications. But as more and more people across the country are leaving jobs, it’s left many companies having to look internally and wonder, “What are we doing wrong?”


Some people claim a hatred of their jobs; others claim the jobs don’t pay enough and aren’t worth the trouble. Whatever the reasons, there is an overall sense nationwide that companies must collaborate with nonprofits and educational institutions—many of whom are in touch with low-to-moderate income individuals looking for their next opportunities—and properly train them in certain fields so that the employee and employer can ultimately thrive.

“Hourly workers were hit the hardest in the pandemic,” Van Saun said. “There’s opportunities to work with companies, nonprofits, education, to find new paths to upskill those people for sustainable incomes in the future.”

Van Saun said that when Citizens speaks with its partners in the banking arena, “we can see pretty clearly what skills need to be imparted on people.”

Van Saun said it’s imperative that Citizens and other financial institutions take charge and get the ball rolling on creating that internal job pipeline.

“I don’t care if you’re a corporation, nonprofit, education, not working…if you’re retired…it is all of our responsibility to reach out and help our community,” Bush said at the panel discussion. “This is where you live, to help our community to make sure that our children are getting everything they need. To make sure their parents are better equipped for the opportunities (ahead). It’s about access, development, promotion, believing in, crossing over…it doesn’t matter to me what your credentials are, as long as you can do it (the job).”

Citizens also announced a $25,000 grant to Community College of Allegheny County for its workforce development programs. Overall, Citizens has pledged more than $100,000 to workforce development programs across the region in recent weeks.

To the betterment of all employees, this “corporations investing in workforce development programs” has caught on nationally. From Amazon to Facebook, Home Depot to Chevron, major companies are throwing tons of dollars into these programs, partnering with higher-learning institutions, nonprofits and other public-private partnerships.

“What we’re all learning is that we can’t say the roof is leaking anymore and then invest in buckets,” Cherry said. “We have to look at problems for what they are and engage them in this type of conversation.”


Bush, the longtime advocate for African Americans’ upward trajectory, said she’s excited when African Americans are trained to do, say, a banking job, and then are hired by Citizens or another institution. But she’d be doubly excited to see African Americans on a larger scale get trained and hired. Instead of, say, 4 or 5 people getting banking jobs or tech jobs, she wants to see training programs that involve hundreds of African Americans getting the skills needed, then getting the jobs. She pointed out that while African Americans comprise 7 percent of all tech jobs nationwide, they comprise just 1 percent of the tech jobs in the Pittsburgh area. That must be changed, she said.

Stief, the Crossroads Foundation executive director, agreed: “Young people can’t become what they can’t see. A lot of what we do is to find that 1 percent who are in tech, so that young people can see this concrete pathway in front of them. They can see that it’s possible.”

Stief added: “We need to put out the welcome sign in more than just words.”

Van Saun said he envisions these partnerships as “a society of opportunity where people always have opportunities to keep reaching their potential.”

Bush, not one to mince words, challenged company leaders in the entire region—the vast majority of which are White—to invest in workforce development programs, which ultimately, diversifies the company’s workforce while keeping the company sustainable.

“We have enough intellect, wealth, opportunity right here in the City of Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities,” Bush said. “If we  were just bold enough to say, ‘We’re going to use all of the talent of our citizenry to make Pittsburgh one of the best places for every citizen here to live.’ What that’s going to take is intentionality, bolder steps from the (company) leadership, not with a statement of, ‘I did that because,’ but with, ‘This is what’s appropriate for my community, for our community.’”


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