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A resurgent Philly job training group aims to serve Rev. Leon Sullivan’s legacy in new-tech times

James Hayne, an ex-Johnson & Johnson executive, is tapping Comcast, GM, and other big companies in moving the pioneering job prep group into new areas.

James Haynes, a former consumer-products executive, is leading the transformation of the late Rev. Leon Sullivan's Opportunities Industrialization Center so it preps more of tomorrow's software and healthcare pros.
James Haynes, a former consumer-products executive, is leading the transformation of the late Rev. Leon Sullivan's Opportunities Industrialization Center so it preps more of tomorrow's software and healthcare pros.Read moreOIC

After Philadelphia Rev. Leon H. Sullivan died twenty years ago, the local Opportunities Industrialization Centers he founded went on prepping Blacks and others for the mainstream U.S. workforce. But the national group, based in Sullivan’s Philadelphia, shrank to a skeleton staff.

Now a former Johnson & Johnson executive is rebuilding the group, promoting higher-tech job training for a digital America.

Under CEO James Haynes, the team running Philadelphia-based OIC America has grown from three staffers to 20, and garnered the support of corporations like Comcast.

Haynes’ team is also updating Sullivan’s vision to build more inclusive, STEM-literate communities.

“We’re not mass-advertising this. We’re more the quiet storm,” Haynes told me. “We are trying to make people aware that we are able to transform lives. That’s what we do.”

Sullivan, the longtime pastor of Zion Baptist Church, left a formidable legacy, believing that better jobs would create true empowerment for Blacks. In 1960, he directed hundreds of ministers to launch a boycott of Philadelphia-based companies that did not hire equitably. The boycott used the slogan “DON’T BUY where you can’t work” and created thousands of jobs for Black workers but they still needed needed to be trained. So Sullivan founded the first OIC in 1964 in a former police station and jail at 19th and Oxford.

OIC honored that history at its April program, which marked the 20th anniversary of Sullivan’s death and included reminisces by Sullivan’s daughter Hope, and OIC “celebrity ambassador” Gerald Alston of the Manhattans reprising Sam Cook’s Civil Rights-era standard, A Change is Gonna Come.

Fifty years ago, General Motors asked Sullivan to be the first black board member of a big U.S. company. And “it was like what’s going on today — some are individuals still fighting the Civil War, ” recalled U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D., Phila. at the program.

Sullivan “led beyond the pettiness,” using his “overwhelming personality” to persuade corporate bosses to set up programs to bring in minority-owned suppliers and dealers, and push employers to divest from minority-ruled South Africa, Evans recounted.

When the latest Sullivan successor departed four years ago, then-board chairman Haynes stepped into the job, at first on an interim basis.

Haynes worked most of his career in the private sector, but knew OIC very early: His mother trained cashiers for OIC in Nashville. She and his father, a technician and weekend drag-racer, pushed Haynes to college. ROTC and Army service helped set his work habits. His years in health consumer supply-chain management for J&J brought him onto industry committees, where Sullivan himself recruited Haynes to the board at the end of the 1980s.

Now in charge, Haynes said, “I found we had an asset, a brand, that we could use, to re-energize people about what we do -- which is to help people to help themselves.”

He urged local OICs to set up staffing agencies: ”Employers steal and hire our people -- let’s make them pay for it” as a service, picking up contracts for public-transport maintenance in Florida and running Labor Department-funded prison-to-workplace programs.

“We ought to own our old buildings,” Haynes added. OIC’s focus on Black empowerment didn’t protect its offices on North Broad Street from vandals who busted windows amid the looting that followed police-protest marches in the city last spring.

Haynes says OIC has shifted away from its old focus on cashier and assembly-line training toward work that offers a career for the future. Home health care can be a step to nursing, while online-gaming can lead to software development and cybersecurity.

“Many jobs are already moving from $7 to $15 an hour. That’s still not enough money,” Haynes said. “STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] is a way forward.” That doesn’t always mean the university: “College and a four-year mountain of debt is not for everybody. [Employers] don’t train for the sake of training. The goal is to provide economic independence. This is what Sullivan believed in.”

OIC is positioning itself to help big employers face national crises and opportunities, as Sullivan did half a century ago. “We had riots in Detroit in 1967, and after the death of Martin Luther King [a year later], and GM felt we had to focus on doing something more,” recalled Ken Barrett, global chief diversity officer of General Motors, who also attended OIC’s Sullivan memorial in April.

Count Comcast, the largest for-profit company in Philadelphia, among the OIC believers. “I’m a huge supporter of OIC,” which is building “a digitally literate workforce in our hometown” and its other target cities, said Robert F. Smith, vice president of community impact at Comcast.

Comcast helped pay to develop OIC’s digital-literacy training program, prepping hotel workers for more than “dead-end jobs.”

The idea, Smith adds, is to give workers at OIC Workforce Academy in Philadelphia “the skills to move from kitchen prep to kitchen management, or from housekeeping to the front desk.”

OIC requires its job candidates to pass a digital high school-equivalency test, making the program effectively “an alternative public high school,” as Smith put it.

Comcast also sponsors a digital-media program at OIC. Run by the Big Picture Alliance, its students submit films to festivals, snag paid internships at Comcast and other media companies -- and “most important learn valuable 21st Century power skills that will help them” in any job, or college, Smith concludes. “OIC continues to innovate, not relying on successes of the past.”