We asked William to share his story and dish advice to young people in honor of career and technical education month in Minnesota and across the country. William is the “2018 Business Leader of the Year” named by the Association for Career and Technical Education.
Who are you and what do you do?
I was very fortunate to grow up on a farm and realized at age 17 that I wanted to focus my life’s work on helping the planet feed itself. Fifty years later I am still at it. Howard Buffet’s book 40 Chances inspired me and I highly recommend it. I have used my forty chances and created a lot more, for myself and others. I used three chances in community education in an urban school system; 13 in teaching and leadership positions in a technical college, and 24 in corporate philanthropy in which our funding focused on career development opportunities, such as the National Teach Ag campaign. I retired from 40 years of employment, to continue my work in service and consulting (William J. Nelson, LLC) activities, focusing more and more of my time and energy on creating ‘chances’ for others too, especially the next generation.
In your view, what role does career and technical education play in Minnesota’s workforce readiness?
I have a blended education of the liberal arts and technical education and have been involved in both throughout my childhood and working career. I think a blend—perhaps on a continuum for each person that best fits them—is both valuable for the person but also for society. I think “workforce readiness” means more than just being employable, but also entrepreneurial; and for the organization (business, association, non-profit, etc.) to be a partner with the person as an employee to help them grow and change as the organization grows and changes.
What advice do you have for young people today?
Learn every which way you can, constantly, continually, creatively, with a personal mission drawing you forward. Follow two rules: 1) Get involved in projects that you cannot do alone and 2) Get involved in projects that will take longer than your own lifetime to complete.
Can you think of one technical skill set that every person should know who to do?
The ability to stand in front of a group of people on short notice and speak coherently. (Extemporaneous speaking). One might question whether this is a technical skill: I think I could argue a case that it is. Think about it. Try it. Don’t just rely on technical communication skills (social media) to be a substitute for using your own voice courageously.
William is an independent consultant who works with a broad range of educational and agricultural organizations as they address future needs and opportunities. He previously served more than two decades as vice president of Corporate Citizenship for CHS Inc. and president of the independent CHS Foundation.