Philip and Melissa Clements, Tom Smigielski, and Mike Chittum (from left) have partnered through the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition to pioneer a workforce development program through training students in soft skills taught by trained substitute teachers.
Mike Chittum of Vinton originally signed up for the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition with plans for opening a coffee shop.
“The root of what I wanted to do was based around being a social venture that used a for-profit business to do good in the world,” said Chittum. “Shortly before the Gauntlet began— through a series of life events and conversations, I partnered up with three other people— Philip and Melissa Clements, and Tom Smigielski with a company called ‘The Foundry’.”
The Foundry is the brainchild of Philip Clements. Their website www.thefoundry.org explains that “The Foundry” derives from the idea and intent of “creating or casting, a better future. In a foundry, material is exposed to high heat and then reshaped to form the desired result.” Their group “is driven by a mandate to create opportunity for individuals, nonprofits, governments, and businesses that help raise our community economically, physically, and socially.”
While that may sound lofty, their goals are quite specific. Their focus is on “solving the community’s most pressing and challenging problems through workforce development.”
“We are creating a social venture working in the educational space to create practical training for the workforce of tomorrow,” Chittum said.
All four are “seasoned professionals.” Philips Clements has taught elementary, middle, and high school; worked as a business leader with both private companies and non-profits; and serves as a community advocate.
Chittum has worked in IT for 20 years; Smigielski, in marketing and advertising; Melissa Clements works as a Strategy and Business Operations Manager with extensive experience in strategy planning and execution, forecast development and management, and program management.
Chittum says that for several years he has had an “inkling” to do something entirely different, more purpose-driven, with a social impact,” but still in the for-profit world.
He and Philip Clements have been friends for many years. When Clements shared his concept of workforce development and the organization he had started, Chittum “fell in love with the idea.” He joined the other three in the Gauntlet to augment the workforce development program “for profit but to effect change in the world.”
Their unique concept focuses not on the hard skills of a specific occupation, but on the soft skills even more vital for success in the workplace.
Hard skills are skill sets typically taught through books, training materials, or on the job—such as machine operation, typing, or computer programming—those listed on a resume.
Soft skills, also known as “people skills” or “interpersonal skills” are much more subjective—work ethic, time management, patience, leadership, positive attitude, communication, teamwork, decision-making, perseverance, and problem solving.
However, a 2013 study conducted by Google indicated that their best employees possessed seven characteristics unrelated to hard skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, having empathy toward colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem solver, and being able to connect with others across complex ideas.
Chittum says that employers are increasingly looking for soft skills when hiring. New employees can always be trained in the hard skills, but soft skills tend to develop over time, in fact, throughout an individual’s lifetime.
That’s why The Foundry doesn’t begin with secondary education or community college programs, but with children just beginning school and throughout their years of elementary and secondary education.
And how do you work with those children from kindergarten through 12th grade on the soft skills? That’s where The Foundry idea is so exceptional. They propose training substitute teachers in instruction on those soft skills.
Philip Clements says that in the United States 5.5 million students are taught each day by a substitute teacher. Most classroom teachers are absent 11 or more days per school year. That means a child from kindergarten through high school will spend on average at least one year in total being taught by a substitute.
Further, requirements for working as a substitute teacher are minimal. In one local system a substitute needs only a high school diploma and a background check. Often, there is little to no training, leading to “no real learning outcome for students.”
The Foundry wants to capture the untapped potential of this time by offering a different substitute staffing solution.
“The Foundry is uniquely different in that we are not attempting to staff schools with substitutes that approach the problem as it has always been done,” said Clements. “We acknowledge the importance of the substitute teacher on the long-term success of the student and are committed to raising the bar for substitute teachers.
“We will staff schools with substitutes that are highly motivated, trained, and equipped with curriculum that offers students a real learning environment,” Clements said. “Students learn soft skills and entrepreneurship from well-prepared substitutes. The substitutes are proactive, inspirational, and able to deliver an impactful learning experience.
“The Foundry is committed to recruiting the brightest and most motivated candidates,” Clements said. “We will offer the highest quality pool of talent available in the substitute teacher profession and give them the tools to teach.”
The Foundry wants to staff schools with “substitutes with substance,” trained in teaching soft skills and basic entrepreneurial skills.
Their substitute teaching staff will be trained and certified in the research-based STEDI.org sub program prior to entering the classroom. They will participate in an apprenticeship program with an experienced substitute teacher prior to leading a classroom and continue to receive training each month.
The Foundry recently met with a local school system to pitch the proposal with hopes of starting up a pilot program that will eventually lead to a contract with one or multiple school systems.
Their plan for the pilot program is for substitutes to come into the schools for 10 days to teach the specific curriculum involving soft skills and entrepreneurial mindset. They will collect data to prove that the program works, that students were engaged, and that the system is of value. That will lead to school systems being willing to contract with The Foundry for its services.
The Foundry members joined the Gauntlet program to “ramp up and get going,” to immerse themselves in a structured manner as a group in developing their business model, to “dive deeper” with the business sessions, to network, and to get good feedback on their proposal from already successful entrepreneurs.
The Gauntlet program urges entrepreneurs to assess their market and competition and evaluate the need for their services.
Foundry members say “there is no competition; no one does this,” while there is a desperate need for the services they can provide. They want to change how the substitute system works and offer a “strategic plan focusing on preparing students for the competitive global workplace.”
Roanoke City Schools already outsources substitute teacher hiring and assignment. However, those substitute teachers aren’t trained in the program The Foundry plans to institute.
The Foundry aims to both train the subs and to get them in place “en masse” in the local schools.
Philip Clements, Chittum, and Smigielski have all participated in the prestigious Leadership Roanoke Valley (LRV) program which encourages community leadership in the region to address the challenges the Roanoke Valley faces.
Last year, LRV sponsored a mass Junior Achievement “JA in a Day” program in 60 third grade classrooms in Roanoke City. Local business volunteers taught a crash business course with components on money management skills and what it takes to start a business. The program helped to “educate and inspire youth about the connection between education and success in the workplace and give them hope for the future.” That’s basically the goal of The Foundry in a nutshell.