A one-time teenaged factory “trucker washer” who succeeded in business has returned to Winchester Avenue to help other New Haven kids follow in his footsteps—and to help out-of-work adults get jobs drawing blood.
The former washer is Carlton Highsmith. He founded a company called Specialized Packaging Company. He sold it and retired.
Now he has come out of retirement to help launch New Haven’s latest major effort to get the unemployed into a “jobs pipeline.” He has raised the money to launch the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), which opens this week at Science Park. Erik Clemons, 46, a former head of LEAP, one of New Haven’s premier youth programs, has taken the helm as ConnCAT’s executive director.
The center, which occupies 15,000 square feet on the second floor of a two-story brick building at Science Park, will train 100 local unemployed and underemployed adults a year for phlebotomy (blood-drawing) and medical coding and billing jobs. It has arranged with Yale-New Haven Hospital and other “partners” to keep internship slots open for the program’s graduates, then try hard to hire them.
That’s the school’s 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift. It launches an after-school digital arts and reading program for 100 kids in the fall. (The first 30 kids will start the program this summer, focusing on the Harlem Renaissance.)
The new not-for-profit school represents one key part of New Haven’s emerging strategy to create a “jobs pipeline” to help recession-battered neighborhoods, although the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven introduced the concept back in 2008. It brought Bill Strickland, founder of a nationally recognized urban arts and vo-tech program that started in Pittsburgh, to town in order to drum up interest in a local offshoot. (Click here for a debate on local funding priorities that took place at the time of the visit.)
Four years later, Carlton Highsmith made the project happen. ConnCAT will be the fifth center affiliated with Strickland’s national network. In one year, he said, he was able to raise $5 million toward a goal of $5.7 million to fully fund the center’s first three years.
He considered it a calling. One that brought him back to his roots.
Growing up in the Brookside public-housing projects, he took a job at 17 at the old Winchester Arms rifle factory, the abandoned complex that has since been reborn as Science Park. Back then Highsmith landed a “truck washer” job in the plant. That meant taking oil-coated machine parts, washing them in saline solution, the bringing them to the next work station.
From there, he studied economics at University of Wisconsin, then worked his way up in business. He became one of the region’s leading entrepreneurs. His company was North America’s third-largest producer of recycled paperboard. He had over 600 employees at 11 locations. It was also Connecticut’s biggest minority-owned company.
“I got so consumed with running and growing my business, I wasn’t focused enough on how the community had deteriorated, how poverty and drugs had continued to multiply” Highsmith, who’s 60, said during an interview Monday at ConnCAT’s loft space. The seven-member staff was busy getting ready for a Thursday open house.
The building is nicknamed “The Shed” dating back to the days Highsmith worked at the gun factory. When up to 20,000 people worked at the gun complex, the corporate owners had their own fire department and probably stored equipment there, according to Will Ginsberg, currently the head of the Community Foundation and a former Science Park Development Corporation chief. Now, designed by Svigals + Partners architects, the ConnCAT space is sun-filled and wide open, with high roofs and exposed pipes and gallery spaces. A Yale art school show (including the piece pictured here) is up; it will eventually be replaced by students’ own work. Eventually Highsmith and Clemons hope to expand the center to the first floor.
“I just didn’t feel right going off and playing golf all the time. There were things I had to do,” Highsmith said of his decision to get involved in the center.
Those “things” involved taking the position of unpaid board chairman of ConnCAT, then raising the money. The $5 million includes support from Yale-New Haven, the Seedlings Foundation, the Community Foundation, First Niagara bank, and Cheshire’s Alexion, a pharmaceutical company that started in Science Park. Yale-New Haven got involved after Strickland “enthralled” the hospital’s CEO during the 2008 visit, according to Seniro Vice-President Kevin Myatt, who has played an active role in ConnCAT’s development and serves on the board. He said the hospital has committed $500,000 over four years to the project.
Highsmith didn’t just seek money from supporters. He sought advice, too. Yale-New Haven and Bill Strickland’s organization help design the phlebotomy curriculum, for instance. Alexion helped design the lab where students will draw blood from each other.
The idea is to prepare people for jobs that exist in New Haven’s economy—to get 20 people at a time ready for the medical coding and billing jobs over 30 weeks, and 20 people at a time ready for the phlebotomist positions over 16 weeks, before linking them with employers.
Already, 65 people have inquired about the first 40 slots. The staff will begin vetting them Friday. Those who fail literacy and numeracy exams will be able to receive tutoring at the center to prepare them to pass the exams again in the future. Highsmith and Clemons expect to start the classes in about a month after receiving final state certification.
Meanwhile, the idea behind the teen arts program is to steer “at risk” kids toward college. All the school’s programs will be free. Highsmith noted the funding challenges arts programs face these days (a topic at the center of a recent arts leaders’ convocation). “You see study after study that shows you the value of arts education,” he said. “It gets kids excited about learning.” The center’s teen program will lead with computer graphics on 21.5-inch iMacs and other studio and digital arts, but will also include a heavy dose of writing. New Haven and Hamden public schools will refer the students.
“We really weren’t interested in creating an arts after-school program for middle-class kids,” Highsmith said. He wanted kids growing up in circumstances similar to his—in the hope they’ll grab the same key he did to success.
Previous “jobs pipeline” coverage: