Photo by Rachel Coward

Al Lewis’ varied career prepared him well for his job as Bellevue College’s vice president of economic development. His new task? Creating tomorrow’s workforce.

There’s a strong likelihood that Bellevue College will be the final stop in Al Lewis’ cross-country, three-career employment journey. And Lewis, the Eastside school’s vice president of economic and workforce development, seems content with that probability.

“The culture, the president, the commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the willingness to be on the leading edge in education,” Lewis said. “Why wouldn’t I want to come to Bellevue?”

Lewis came to Bellevue College one year ago this month from Moraine Valley Community College, where he was the dean of corporate, community, and continuing education for the 17,000-student school in Palos Hills, Illinois. Lewis also has been executive director of community and workforce training for Cuyahoga Community College, a 31,000-student institution in Cleveland, and director of business development at Corporate College, a division of Cuyahoga Community College aimed at professional training and development courses.

Then there’s Lewis’ other two careers. He has spent time in broadcasting — as sales manager for radio stations in West Virginia and Ohio — and as an entrepreneur who founded, owned, and published a newspaper called The Straight Scoop, which focused on drug abuse.

“It was a community-service, added-value opportunity for local radio stations to address their community on the important issue of drug abuse while generating revenue from non-traditional sources,” Lewis said.

Today, the Renton resident is a doctoral candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at Grand Canyon University; he expects to graduate in the spring. And although he’s living a long way from his native Ohio, the former Marshall University football player and oldest of nine kids still uses a valuable memory from his childhood to motivate him today.

“I was the first in my family to achieve a college degree,” Lewis said. “My father never had the opportunity to attend college and wanted nothing more than for his children to pursue higher education. That was his vision, and I grabbed on to it.”

ask_sidebarQ: You’ve been at Bellevue College a year and have spent nearly two decades in higher education. What have you learned in that time? 

A: From a business perspective, the Seattle area demonstrates strong entrepreneurial inclinations. Because of the nature of some of the companies and the education level of the population, there is an atmosphere of business creation not seen in the Midwest. Bellevue College is well-positioned to support this growth with proven degrees and certificates in the health and tech sectors.

The college enjoys a reputation second to none in the Puget Sound region, and it is my goal to continue to build on the foundation of those before me as we strive to better serve our students, our community, and industry as we seek to provide work-ready employees for the region.

Q: Can you explain your role with the school?

A: My role is to connect the college to the economic and workforce development ecosystem of the Puget Sound region. To that end, we try to understand the human-capital needs of employers in the area, and match those needs with the students we graduate. Further, as an economic engine, we want to have the flexibility and velocity to meet employer human-capital needs for customized training and development solutions in real time.

Q: What types of students do you see enrolling in continuing education classes at BC? 

A: Continuing education cuts a wide swath. We work with everyone from teenagers to seniors. Our programs provide professional development and personal enrichment programs and courses depending on the goals of the individuals. We offer certificates in information technology and foreign languages as well as courses for people that would like to better use their camera.

Q: Do you partner with specific businesses to train groups of employees? 

A: We partner with a number of organizations offering courses in leadership, computer training and other soft skills based on the needs of the organization. Our partnerships and trainings are solution-based. When an organization partners with Bellevue College Continuing Education for employee training, we take them through a process to understand the type of engagement needed. Employee training is not always the answer. When an organization comes to us seeking training, we ask: Why do you think they need training? What is the current state? What is your evidence? Is training the answer, or is there another solution? What does success look like? How are you measuring success? Are the people that you want trained open to it?

Our goal when working with an organization is transformation. To achieve transformation, we need to understand the company’s current state and desired future state. There should be congruence and alignment with the organization’s mission, vision, values, and how the company envisions the future for those being trained.

Q: Can you explain how the Occupational Life Skills program works?

A: OLS at Bellevue College is an associate’s-degree program for adults with cognitive disabilities. The program offers scaffolded instruction to teach and prepare students to become self-determined, contributing citizens and successful employees. Twenty-first-century skills are infused into the curriculum, with a focus on critical and social thinking and self-determination. During the four-year program, students develop a career pathway, expand interpersonal skills, take part in service learning, and participate in internship experiences.

OLS students are adults who are often overlooked as potential college students. Some take a couple college courses elsewhere, but drop out because the traditional college classroom doesn’t work for their learning style. Others are in a pattern of being hired and fired because they may not “fit in” with the work culture.

Once accepted into the OLS program, students are placed in a cohort of 12. This cohort then learns together during the four-year, 90-credit program — experiencing their highs and lows together as a community and serving as a tight-knit support network for one another.

People with disabilities are three times less likely to have a job than people without disabilities, and if they are employed, they tend to be paid less. More than half of workers with disabilities earn less than $25,000 a year.

To address this disparity, OLS courses incorporate service learning in the community with local businesses such as Youth Care, Little Bit (Therapeutic Riding Center), and the Ronald McDonald House as a way to help students employ new skills outside of the classroom. Students create a career pathway over a three-year period that is specific to their skills, strengths, and passions. This career pathway translates into a 200-hour internship completed during a student’s last two quarters. Often, these mutually beneficial internships translate into jobs post-graduation, and most students are employed in their career pathway within three months after graduation.

One of our main goals here is to see all our graduates gainfully employed, making a livable wage and contributing financially and socially to their communities. We’re providing a space where they can learn more about something they are passionate about so that they become agents in their own lives.

Q: How do you serve the tech community, both in training students and retraining current workers? 

A: Bellevue College provides a number of certificate and degree programs to serve this sector. We have close relationships with several companies, as they sit on our advisory boards to inform our program content. Advisory board participation in our programs is essential and affords us the opportunity to access real-time input from leading industry professionals. This connectivity allows BC to pivot when needed to address the changing demands of employers and ensure our graduates are properly prepared to enter the workplace. It also helps us ensure our students are receiving a top-rate education.

Q: Anything else we should know about Bellevue College and the role it plays in our business sectors? 

A: People can’t help but notice that there have been a lot of changes at BC in recent years and often want to know why. When you look at our mission, the answer is simple: We are working every day to advance the lifelong educational development of our students while strengthening the economic, social, and cultural life of our diverse community. We must look to the changes that are influencing our student and business communities as we adjust our offerings to ensure our students are given the most up-to-date pedagogies, training, and tools.

As our modern workforce changes, businesses and higher education alike recognize that the major gaps between traditional programming, pedagogies, and graduation rates in growing areas such as healthcare, energy, and information technology demand increased training opportunities to meet this workforce need. For example, BC recently received approval to offer two new bachelor of applied science degrees —one in health promotion management and the other in healthcare management and leadership. These degrees are specifically designed to provide Puget Sound residents with affordable paths to family-wage jobs in growing fields. Bellevue College has also received approval from the Washington State Legislature to develop a bachelor of science degree in computer science. This establishes BC as the first community college in the state to offer a four-year bachelor of science program open to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. To date, community-college bachelor’s degree programs have all been two-year, applied baccalaureate degrees designed for the professional or technical student with an associate’s degree.

In tailoring our programs to the state’s workforce needs, our graduates are able to quickly find living-wage jobs. In fact, according to the state Education Research & Data Center, BC graduates who were awarded bachelor’s degrees in 2011-12 earned a median salary of $48,200 in 2013.

As the community’s college, we are keenly aware of our duty to serve the needs of the community that supports us. We work to prepare our students to consider the next thing, not just do the current thing; to think critically; and to adapt to changing environments and emerging technologies.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of “425 Business.”