The Portland Workforce Alliance began as an idea shared by people with different perspectives on a common challenge:
Connecting young people in Portland to great jobs.
In 2004, leaders in Portland City Hall, Portland Public Schools and the Oregon governor’s office began talking in earnest about this challenge. They saw that Portland teenagers were often unaware of the region’s promising careers and family-wage jobs, and of the educational paths leading to those jobs. They also saw that teenagers from lower-income families paid the highest price for this lack of exposure to the world of possibilities.
They kept talking, led by the offices of City Commissioner Jim Francesconi and PPS Superintendent Vicki Phillips. And in 2005, a door opened.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski directed $100,000 in workforce development funds toward an initiative to expose Portland high school students to good jobs. The Kaiser Family Foundation invested $75,000. Gunderson, an advanced manufacturer with a keen interest in workforce development, kicked in $25,000.
That year, the Portland Workforce Alliance was born as a sponsored project of the Portland Schools Foundation, led by founding director Kevin Jeans Gail. PWA’s first NW Youth Careers Expo in the spring of 2005 attracted about 1,800 students, mostly from Benson High School.
Today, the Portland Workforce Alliance is its own nonprofit with 501(c)(3) status and a board of directors. The annual Expo has grown into a signature career-education event that attracts about 7,000 students and nearly 200 exhibitors, including top employers from throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington.
PWA has grown as an organization, too, “slowly, and with great persistence,” in the words of Jeans Gail. Early partners, board members and scores of caring, committed volunteers persevered through economic and educational challenges to build a spectrum of opportunities for students.
PWA now offers Portland-area students more than 12,000 career-learning experiences a year, largely through the Expo and about three dozen career days at local employers such as Nike, Wieden + Kennedy, Howard S. Wright Construction, Mercy Corps and OHSU. PWA also facilitates hundreds of mentorships, mock interviews and classroom speakers, and it works closely with Portland Public Schools, Portland State University, Oregon Health & Science University and Portland Community College to build career pathways for young people.
Though the organization has grown, its central mission remains unchanged. PWA serves as a liaison between high school students and employers, with the twin goals of helping young people find their career paths and the region build an educated, skilled and resilient workforce.