When Michael Zytkow launched Potions & Pixels in June 2016, it was a regular event aimed at bringing the city’s gamers together to have a good time playing video games from the past and present in a social atmosphere — but he always had a bigger vision.
At a graduation event for its first workforce development program on Thursday night, Zytkow and his partners took an important step in making Potions & Pixels the community-driven organization they’ve wanted from the beginning.
At The Nest at Hygge Coworking at Camp North End, Zytkow handed out certificates of completion to 18 workforce development program graduates who spent the last three months learning the electrical trade by repairing broken arcade games. They will now have a chance to meet with employers in a city that has seen a shortage of workers skilled in that trade.
Potions & Pixels collaborated with a coalition of local businesses and organizations including the City of Charlotte’s North End Smart District, Abari Game Bar, SetPlay, DPR Construction and more to launch the program.
Over the last three months, Zach Pulliam and Matthew Mandarano of Abari Game Bar taught classes covering safety and the basics of electrical engineering, building up participants’ skills before letting them work on the broken arcade games, which were donated by Alonzo Cunningham of SetPlay, an organization that hosts gaming tournaments and other events in Charlotte.
“Alonzo had a bunch of these games that were not working,” Pulliam recalled on Thursday. “Matt and I just looked, we had an idea what was wrong with them, and we bought the appropriate parts and worked our way up to where [the workforce development participants] were confident enough [for us] to say, ‘You take it. You’ve learned all these skills, now it’s your turn to do these repairs.’”
Dannie Goodson said he’s already been in the electrical field for five years, but learned a lot of new skills through the program. Another participant, Aquicia Robinson, said she was waiting tables when Zytkow asked if she would be interested in trying something new. Now that she’s gone through the program, she said she looks forward to pursuing electrical work as a career.
“With the arcade games, they made it really fun, and I can get into just about anything that I do, so it was pretty cool,” Robinson said. “I’m definitely interested in doing more now.”
Goodson said he got into electrical work in a similar way — someone coming into his former job and asking if he was interested — and was originally hesitant because he had gotten comfortable at the job he had. That experience taught him a lesson that’s only been reinforced by his experience with Potions & Pixels, he said.
“I just never want anybody to be complacent or be scared to take that next step into doing something that you’ve never done before,” he said.
According to Zytkow and Pulliam, the workforce development program has been nearly a year in the making. Zytkow took to social media to recruit, while also relying on partners in the North End Smart District to bring in participants interested in learning a new trade.
Also involved throughout the process was Derek Benfield, manager of the electrical division for DPR Construction’s Charlotte office. Benfield said that his co-workers came to him when they heard about the possibility of partnering with Potions & Pixels, knowing that his family had been in the arcade business in the 1980s.
Over the last three months, Benfield has acted as a mentor for participants, taking them on a tour of a construction site high up in the Duke Energy Center to give them a taste for what they could expect a day in the life of an electrician in Charlotte to look like.
On Thursday, Benfield said he was impressed by how quickly the participants took to the trade.
“It’s a nod to the instructors and how great of a job they did with everyone, but each student knew their way around their tools, the understanding of what they were trying to accomplish,” Benfield said. “They knew what the goal was when they walked in that day, and it was really nice watching people come from not touching this equipment or knowing how it operates to using it in a safe environment by the end of the class.”
For Benfield and DPR Construction, it’s more than a feel-good story that they can stick on their website for good PR; it’s a way to cultivate a class of workers in a field that has seen the supply dry out while demand continues to skyrocket.
Benfield said he plans to remain in touch with every participant, not only continuing to mentor but to potentially offer jobs to those who are ready.
“There’s definitely work opportunity,” he said. “We’ve met our commitment of what we’re going to do this round, but I think DPR’s commitment will go a little further with the outreach of the community and finding new ways to bring the entry-level employment into our organization, not just with electrical, but with drywall, framing, concrete, some of the other things that the industry seems to be suffering with right now, as Charlotte’s outgrowing the ability [to hire skilled construction workers].”
On Thursday, Zytkow said he was “ecstatic” to see the work of the last three months pay off.
“It’s super rewarding to know that people who are going through this program will be entering the workforce doing critical work for our community — helping build our community, literally — and through that process they’re going to have well-paying jobs, so I can’t be more excited,” he said.
Zytkow — an activist who has run for local office and long been engaged in environmental issues with Occupy Charlotte, Greenpeace and currently Sustain Charlotte — has sought to make Potions & Pixels more active in the community since its founding. The workforce development program was a way to address Charlotte’s infamous lack of economic mobility, Zytkow said.
That small step will lead to bigger ones in the coming year. Before 2019 is over, Zytkow plans to file paperwork to make Potions & Pixels a nonprofit. Next year, he intends to open a “modern community center” from which he and his team can launch new programs to help address and confront social issues in Charlotte.
“We’re doing something unprecedented in regards to tackling social problems that we have in our community in a unique way and that’s through games,” Zytkow said on Thursday. “It’s a way to unite multiple passions: a passion for community, a passion for Charlotte and a passion for games.”
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