Manchester Bidwell leader steps down after 50 years

Since he founded a North Side ceramics studio in 1968, William E. Strickland Jr. has molded the minds of tens of thousands of students, training them for careers in health care, horticulture, laboratories, restaurants, pharmacies, hotels and private clubs. 

On Monday, Mr. Strickland, now 70, told staff at Manchester Bidwell Corp. that he is stepping down as president and CEO after 50 years. In his new role as executive chairman, he will keep raising money for the North Side nonprofit and replicating the workforce training programs he established.

Leading daily operations now will be Kevin Jenkins, who had been chief operating officer since 2015. Mr. Jenkins, 56, has been promoted to president and chief executive officer of Manchester Bidwell Corp., 1815 Metropolitan St.

“This place is kind of like home for me,” said Mr. Jenkins, who was executive director of Holy Family Institute in Emsworth from 2001 to 2006. That’s because some Holy Family students take art classes or earn degrees at Manchester Bidwell.

Mr. Jenkins, a Pittsburgh native, grew up in McKeesport and on a farm in Elizabeth Township with a menagerie of animals. A Penn State University graduate who holds a master’s degree in social work, Mr. Jenkins joined the Pittsburgh Foundation’s staff in 2006. A year later, he became senior program officer for health and human services. The foundation named him vice president for public policy and civic leadership in 2014. 

In an interview this week, Mr. Strickland remained an enthusiastic evangelist for the arts, practical education and the program he began building in the aftermath of crime and despair that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

In 1968, Mr. Strickland started the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, which now offers ceramics, photography and three-dimensional printing classes. Also in 1968, the Rev. Jimmy Joe Robinson founded Bidwell Cultural and Training Center. Five years later, in 1972, Rev. Robinson asked Mr. Strickland to lead Bidwell. Now called Bidwell Training Center, it prepares people for the workforce. Its degrees are accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

There are still thousands of displaced workers in Pennsylvania who need to be retrained and employed, he said, adding that Manchester Bidwell has an agreement with the University of Pittsburgh to open a program on the school’s Titusville campus, possibly in 2019. He also hopes to start workforce training programs in Homestead, McKeesport, West Mifflin, Duquesne, Dubois, Tionesta, Lancaster and Harrisburg. 

Noting Pittsburghers’ ardent embrace of the city’s expanding restaurant scene, he added, “Our culinary arts program is booming.”

The Manchester Bidwell model has expanded to 10 U.S. cities and in Akko, Israel. Mr. Strickland will continue courting business leaders and corporations as part of a capital campaign to renovate the organization’s 31-year-old building.

Manchester Bidwell wants to expand and upgrade its kitchen, ceramics studio and jazz education program. The 350-seat auditorium where MCG Jazz offers concerts by top-flight musicians needs new seats.

Martin Ashby, who runs MCG Jazz, wants to expand the jazz education program for local students and add an archives room for the 100,000 digitized images, audio, video and mementos collected over the past 30 years. MCG holds the archives of jazz flautist Herbie Mann and Stanley Turrentine, a Pittsburgh native, saxophone player and composer. 

Valerie Njie, executive director and senior vice president of the Bidwell Training Center, has been with the nonprofit for 37 years. Initially, Bidwell prepared students to become apprentice bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

Bidwell Training Center and Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild moved into its current building in 1986. In 1999, Manchester Bidwell Corp. became the umbrella for both. Where students once learned carpentry, they now study how to do medical coding or claims processing.

When demand for construction workers dropped in the 1990s, Mrs. Njie said, Bidwell Training Center began educating people to work as pharmacy technicians and laboratory technicians. Lab techs find work at companies such as Covestro. Sometimes, pharmacy technicians who wind up working at UPMC hospitals are recruited for nursing school. UPMC pays for their additional education, she said.

“That’s the Bidwell way. Our students graduate debt free and are able to begin a career, not just a job,” Mrs. Njie said.


Marylynne Pitz at, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter: @mpitzpg

Correction, posted June 13, 2018: In an earlier version of this story, the founder of Bidwell Training Center was incorrectly identified. It was started by Rev. Jimmy Joe Robinson in 1968.