A year ago at this time, I felt like a first-grader walking into a new job at the Portland Workforce Alliance, an education nonprofit in east Portland.
This week, I felt like a second-grader returning to that job. (Well, maybe a better comparison might be a high school freshman becoming a sophomore.)
What’s the difference?
Last fall, everything was new. With a year of experience under my belt, everything is a lot more familiar — the work, the people, the acronyms, and the physical surroundings. I’ll get to each of those in more detail, but first a few words about the organization.
Portland Workforce Alliance is a small but muscular nonprofit, leveraging modest financial resources and a ton of volunteer energy to make a big impact in the lives of countless teenagers in the Portland metro area. Founded in 2005, PWA has a well-defined mission of connecting young people to great jobs.
With literally a handful of employees, it builds relationships with local employers and educators to serve up a steady diet of career-related learning experiences that introduce area high school students to jobs and careers that might have eluded them otherwise. The school year calendar is loaded with career days, field trips, job shadows, internships, mock interviews, classroom visits — and the NW Youth Careers Expo, a signature event that brings 150-plus employers and 6,000 students together for a day of career exploration at the Oregon Convention Center.
PWA does all of this Career Technical Education work as a complement to our public schools. The organization has contracts with three metro-area school districts — Portland Public Schools, Parkrose and North Clackamas — that provide most of its revenue, and relies on grants and donations for the rest.
It’s an organization I’m proud to work for. As a first-generation college student coming from a blue-collar household, education is at the top of my list of professional and personal interests. With the encouragement of my parents and the help of a high school journalism adviser who recognized my potential, I was able to recognize my passion early on and get on the path that would lead to a satisfying career that spanned 40 years in various newsrooms.
Now, I’m a former journalist teaching at the college level and helping young adults acquire internships. That work fills up my weekday mornings. Fortunately, I’m able to devote three to four afternoons to part-time work at PWA. This other job does my heart good knowing I’m part of a team working to help students get started on pathways to rewarding careers in technology, architecture, health care, skilled trades and construction, and other well-paying occupations.
That feel-good energy is reinforced knowing that PWA puts extra effort into outreach at highly-diverse, high-poverty high schools where students often come from homes where no one has attended college. I know what it’s like to navigate the college application process on your own. I also know it doesn’t have to be that way. So anything my peers and I can do to demystify the process and help students explore where their interests might take them is something we embrace. Their success is our success.
Much of the appeal of my job lies in whom I work with.
Kevin Jeans Gail, a former neighbor, is the founding executive director of PWA. It’s his vision, energy, networking and optimism that drives the agenda and tone of what we do and how we do it. Kevin is an amazing bridge builder who brings schools and businesses together for the sake of a stronger future workforce.
Susan Nielsen, my former co-worker at The Oregonian, is the program and communications director. She works tirelessly with principals, teachers and career coordinators to determine student interests and then works tirelessly with Portland-area employers to schedule an array of career days, classroom visits and other activities to meet those interests. She also oversees our communications, ranging from the web site to social media to newsletters. Susan does it all with good humor and a second-to-none work ethic.
Kristen Kohashi, our lone millennial, is the program manager. She is a graphic designer whose multiple talents in photography, typography and layout result in attractive and easy-to-digest fliers, brochures, posters and pamphlets. She’s our one-person IT department. In addition, she works with Kevin in managing every aspect of our related nonprofit ACE Mentor Program of Oregon, which offers intensive after-school training to students interested in Architecture, Construction Management and Engineering. Last spring, ACE awarded $75,000 in college scholarships to 16 Portland-area seniors.
Sherri Nee, also a former journalist, is the program development manager. Hired just this fall, she is the “new kid” this year. She works with Susan on the front lines with students and teachers in developing career-learning experiences that range from the construction trades to nursing to advertising and much, much more. Sherri brings previous experience with two student-focused nonprofits she helped start.
I’m the communications coordinator, primarily working with Susan on grant writing, web content and miscellaneous projects involving data collection and analysis.
Though we have clearly defined roles, some tasks call for all hands on deck. This is most evident in the months of work leading up to the Expo, but pitching in also can take the form of assembling file folder materials or setting up a room for a meeting of the board of directors.
Speaking of which, we’re fortunate to work with a diverse group of about 30 business and education leaders who volunteer their time to support the work we do and help us recruit new companies and individuals to the cause.
I pinched myself last year when things fell into place at work. After I left The Oregonian at the end of 2015, I had nine months to relax and recharge. When I went back to work, I found myself starting fresh with adjunct teaching gigs at two local universities and this, the perfect part-time job — all of it revolving around the education of college and high school students.
One week into my second year on the job at PWA, things are looking mighty fine.