Training Offers A Second Chance

Dec. 21, 2004
Crown Cork & Seal's Bill Avery is committed to improving the careers and lives of inner-city Philadelphians.

When William J. Avery started to put together a public-private partnership to turn disadvantaged minority youths and adults -- largely from the inner city -- into skilled machinists, "I had a lot of people calling me and telling me this is ridiculous," says the chairman and CEO of $7.7 billion global packaging giant Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc., Philadelphia. People didn't disagree with the idea of providing students a free education. However, they took exception to strict guidelines on dress, absenteeism, and tardiness, and the requirement that students stay drug-free during the rigorous four-phase, 61-week program. "There were a lot of conditions we set that people didn't like," says Avery, who has served as chairman of Philadelphia Area Accelerated Manufacturing Education Inc. (PhAME) since it was founded in 1996. But today PhAME -- despite ongoing struggles to find funding and students who can support themselves while enrolled -- symbolizes what government, educators, and businesses can accomplish when a corporate leader gets personally involved. In three years PhAME, which operates out of a renovated factory in Philadelphia's inner city, has graduated 111 people who have moved on to jobs with starting salaries that range from $10 an hour to $14 an hour for those who have finished the final 24-week advanced- manufacturing phase of the training. Although Avery tries to downplay both his personal role and that of his corporation (he emphasizes the efforts of Pennsylvania State Rep. Dwight Evans, Gov. Tom Ridge, and PhAME's four other cofounders), others give him his due. "Bill has helped in so many ways-with his . . . knowledge, with his business connections, with his personal financial support, with donations of equipment and furniture, with his personal time," says PhAME's president and CEO Antonio J. Gallardo. "His leadership in showing everyone else how they can contribute . . . has enabled PhAME to be where it is today." For example, PhAME operated rent-free at Crown's old headquarters location for its first six months. In January 1999 Avery auctioned 12 cars from his antique car collection and donated the $300,000 in proceeds to PhAME. In October he used more than $50,000 of his own money to purchase some equipment PhAME needed. Indeed, a retired Crown employee estimates Avery has donated more than $500,000 of his own money to PhAME and that Avery and Crown's contribution to PhAME -- in money, equipment, and volunteer time -- exceeds more than $2 million. For his part, Avery says that he "decided a long time ago that whenever something comes up with education I will do whatever it takes to help." He recently helped raise $100 million over five years so that Philadelphia's public schools could receive a $50 million education grant from the Annenberg Foundation, whose focus is on the restructuring and reform of public school education in grades K-12. Avery also works with the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to get children interested in science and math. "So many of society's problems are based on a lack of education," says Avery. "If you provide a way for people to take of care of themselves, then people won't have to steal or sell drugs to support themselves." Granted, PhAME's education, which includes hands-on training on mills, lathes, grinders, and CNC machining centers, is costlier than other approaches. PhAME estimates the training costs $28,000 per participant. But the program graduates skilled machinists who, in many cases, had been on welfare or at a minimum-wage job. The training agency's statistics show that 79% of PhAME participants who are the sole wage earner have household incomes below the poverty level. Yet the program that includes problem-solving and professional conduct has had remarkable success, especially considering that most PhAME students start with eighth-grade math and reading skills. Over 90% of graduates are still at their jobs six months after graduation. That's 20 percentage points higher than the national average. "If you take young people [the average PhAME student is 31] and train them to become machinists and to understand how the business world operates, you have succeeded," says Avery. Among the students grateful for the second chance is David Mumford, 35, who began studying at PhAME in March, 16 months after he was released from prison. "I made some bad decisions in my teens and early 20s, but now I feel the sky is the limit," says Mumford. "Everyone at PhAME is eager to help. There is always someone you can reach out to who will reach back. No one here wants to see you fail. "I tell everyone that this is one of the best things going. It shocks me there aren't people lined up every day trying to get in," says Mumford, who works 16 hours on weekends at a car wash and 20 to 30 hours part-time in the evenings so he can attend PhAME. The financial burden on students who must support themselves while taking classes all day often has limited enrollment to between 20 and 30 students per session. But Mumford says the sacrifice is worth it. "I want to have a wife and a family. I need to know my salary will increase ahead of inflation. Without PhAME I'd still be working full-time at the car wash, trying to save money to go to school. This is definitely a blessing for me." It's also a blessing for companies. Joseph T. Cero Jr., vice president, engineering, at Cer-Mac Inc., Horsham, Pa., says the first two PhAME graduates he hired "were so well prepared, I hired three more in five months. They have superior attitudes. I have every expectation they will move up."

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