Kevin Jeans Gail, the founding executive director and visionary leader of the Portland Workforce Alliance, is retiring. And he’s doing so quietly, as is his style.
Jeans Gail, 66, is stepping down after a 13-year-run that saw the PWA grow from an innovative idea to a dynamic nonprofit that plays an instrumental role in connecting the region’s young people to well-paying jobs in the professions and the trades. His retirement was announced June 13, at the final PWA board meeting of the current fiscal year.
The board named Susan Nielsen, who has been serving as interim executive director since last fall, to succeed Jeans Gail as leader of the small but steadily growing nonprofit.
“I count myself among the legions of people who love Kevin dearly as a mentor and a friend,” Nielsen said. “It has been an extraordinary gift to work alongside him and witness his energy, work ethic, kindness and fierce dedication. The very best attributes of PWA are there because Kevin built them and insisted on them. I am thankful he will continue to stay involved and help more students find their way.”
Jean Gail’s impact in the educational community is hard to overstate.
Founded in 2005 with funding from private, public, and philanthropic sources, the Portland Workforce Alliance works with educators and employers to offer Portland-area students more than 12,000 career-related learning experiences a year. These so-called CRLEs happen through a variety of career days, mentorships, internships, mock interviews, classroom speakers and the NW Youth Careers Expo, a signature event that draws more than 6,500 students and 190-plus exhibitors, including top employers from throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington.
A related event, the annual PWA Expo Breakfast, attracts about 500 business, education and civic leaders on the day of the Expo to celebrate students and inspire more businesses to get involved. Recent keynote speakers have included two Oregon governors, three school superintendents, two leading CEOs, the mayor of Portland, the city’s police chief and other community leaders.
“It was my first year attending the breakfast, and wow,” one attendee said after the 2018 Expo Breakfast. “I’m still thinking of the stories that were shared. A very inspirational morning.”
Jeans Gail has worked tirelessly and largely under the radar to establish partnerships with the education and business communities, and to recruit many hundreds of adult volunteers, with a singular goal of exposing students to potential careers and educating them about the paths leading to those jobs. A related benefit: to help the region build an educated and diverse workforce.
As the director starting out years ago, Jeans Gail sold his ideas to any and all who would listen. He also leaned on his background in community organizing to build support from the bottom up. Working with others:
- He helped persuade Nike, Wieden+Kennedy, Howard S. Wright Construction and others to open their doors to students so they could see their workplace and meet with employees. PWA now schedules about 40 career days a year across a spectrum of employers, including hospitals, design studios, construction firms, energy providers and tech innovators.
- He led the recruitment of Gunderson, Legacy Health & Services, Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission) and others to exhibit at the Expo or support the event financially. Employers and postsecondary partners signed up for a record 195+ exhibitor booths this year, ranging from construction, manufacturing, technology, health care and creative firms to apprenticeship training centers and colleges.
- He helped to establish working relationships with Portland Public Schools, local community colleges and four-year educational institutions. PWA now has contracts with three partner school districts – PPS, Parkrose and North Clackamas – to deliver a spectrum of career-related learning experiences in the metro area.
- He helped PWA join forces with the Portland HR Management Association to offer mock interviews and career workshops to hundreds of students at the Expo and at individual schools throughout the year.
- He helped expand the ACE Mentor Program of Oregon into a model after-school program staffed by PWA and driven by volunteer mentors. It now serves about 150 students a year and just awarded $80,000 in college scholarships to students interested in ACE fields (architecture, construction and engineering).
In 2005, the Portland Workforce Alliance began as a sponsored project of the Portland Schools Foundation. The organization gained nonprofit status thereafter and now operates out of donated PPS office space in Southeast Portland with a staff of five, supported by a large and active board of directors who sustain PWA’s work and volunteer base.
During his tenure at PWA, Jeans Gail’s passion and dedication have attracted many admirers. He’s an especially strong advocate for lower-income teens and students of color, who sometimes have fewer professional connections and less access to early career opportunities.
Former PWA board member Susan Shugerman, an assistant vice provost at Oregon Health & Science University, recalls meeting Jeans Gail in the early days of PWA, when he was seeking business partners for area schools.
“His bright eyes, creative energy, and playful spirit undergirded his incredible dedication to youth,” Shugerman said. “He modeled for us all what collaboration could be – a space where partners come together, learn from each other, share resources, and celebrate the opportunity to open doors for young people.”
Veteran educator Carol Campbell first connected with Jeans Gail in 2011, when she became principal of Benson Polytechnic High School, and recalled his help building programs and partnerships during her two years there. Later, when she became principal at Grant High School, she again turned to him for help establishing a robust Career and Technical Education (CTE) program from scratch.
“I learned a lot from him, and his commitment to helping students explore careers through workplace exposure was a commitment I adopted and still believe in today,” Campbell said. “Kevin is dedicated to his work and his enthusiasm for career education is infectious….He never takes credit for the amazing work he does but is quick to acknowledge others.”
Jim Francesconi, a Portland City Commissioner who was involved in early discussions leading to PWA’s formation, had previously worked with Jeans Gail, first on a community organizing project and then at City Hall, when he hired him as his chief of staff.
“Kevin’s greatest love is the Portland Workforce Alliance and its mission to empower young people,” Francesconi said. “Supporting our young people and giving them the confidence and the skills they need to be successful is Kevin’s greatest accomplishment.”
Student testimonials, gathered after Career Day visits, offer perhaps the most meaningful perspective on Jeans Gail’s work.
“I learned that no one knows for certain how their life will be in the future, but continuing to learn is a valuable skill that can help ease the transition.” — Angela Nguyen, Parkrose High.
“I think the most important thing I learned is to find what you love to do and use it.” — Ramone Gumina, Franklin High.
“I found out that you can come from just about anywhere and still find a place to work, as long as you’re committed.” – Tyson Koopman, Clackamas Middle College.
“I learned that the most important thing is that you need to put work in, and have tons of passion.” — Deghlan Johnson, Cleveland High.