Austin manufacturer lights up streets, minds

The Will Group wants to encourage young people to get into aviation

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By Wendell Hutson

Contributing Reporter

The Will Group is not only an electrical supply company working with ComEd to restore light fixtures in Austin, but is also working with youth interested in aviation careers.

The Will Group is contracted by ComEd to restore 150,000 light fixtures on street poles in Austin, according to its Chairman Stephen Davis, who was among the speakers at the 6th Annual ComEd Multicultural Media Roundtable on April 30. 

The black-owned company currently has 40 employees working at its manufacturing facility, 5261 W. Harrison St., and also has an office in Knoxville, Tenn., Downtown Chicago, Wheaton and downstate Chatham. 

After founding the company, which he named after his late father, William Davis, in 1986, Stephen opened an office in Austin 10 years ago as a way to be closer to individuals struggling to find employment.

"We intentionally moved to Austin because we wanted to be impactful and be near people we could hire who are looking for employment opportunities," said Davis.  

"I believe there's a greater emphasis on companies to come back to urban America and create jobs," he added. "[Besides] why should we [Americans] buy LED light fixtures manufactured in China or Mexico when we can manufacture them right here on the West Side of Chicago?"

He added that he wants to provide job training and employment to more West Side residents this year as a pathway to success, both for the company and employee.

"It's a win-win situation when you hire people from the community. The company gets to develop local talent while also contributing to the local economy, and employees learn a new skill to start a career that allows them to provide for their families," explained Davis.

And one thing Davis said he does like to see are companies seeking to be part of the city's Minority and Women-Owned Business Certification Program, also known as the M/WBE, but that lack a physical presence in minority neighborhoods like Austin.

"You can't sit in Naperville or Schaumburg [two Chicago suburbs whose residents are majority white, according to census data] and expect diversity to happen naturally," said Davis. "You have to move to places like Austin and have a real presence to really be effective."

And companies like The Will Group, which works to build relationships within the community, are community partners ComEd looks to work with to help its customers save money, said ComEd CEO and president Anne Pramaggiore.

"We work hard and creatively to empower families, individuals, businesses, and nonprofits to take control of their energy use," she said. "[And] when customers save energy, they also save money and have a positive impact on the environment."

But besides job creation in Austin, Davis has a passion to help youths find meaningful career options, such as aviation. So as chairman of the DuPage Airport Authority, Davis founded the Tuskegee Next Program and said he did so as a way to honor the legacy of the historic Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. 

"We raise about $300,000 a year to train these young pilots. But raising money or getting instructors is not a problem. The problem is getting kids who are interested in aviation careers," said Davis. "The program starts in June and I don't have any kids from Austin. Our kids don't think about being pilots probably because that's not what they see in their neighborhoods."

The program goal, said Davis, is to eventually create 100 pilots of color. 

"The strategy for Tuskegee Next is to provide role models and a clear path towards aviation careers through flight training, life skills and educational assistance," added Davis.

CONTACT: wreporter@yahoo.com    

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