04 21 2014
  8:09 am  
     •     

James Bowles is on a mission. The interim director of the Portland Community College's Skill Center wants to see local African Americans get a career instead of just a job.
And the PCC Skill Center, which offers training to traditionally underserved residents in Portland, Bowles says, is a perfect starting point.
Recently, the center has reinforced its commitment to helping those who have fallen through the cracks of the education system by providing pre-apprenticeship training for the construction trades. By getting local African Americans involved in a career instead of just a job, Bowles hopes his program can reverse the trends of gentrification near the center's home – the Cascade Campus of Portland Community College.
"We haven't changed our direction, we've changed our strategy (to provide career opportunities to those who have been left behind by traditional education programs)," Bowles said.
A grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation provided an opportunity for those interested in the road construction trades. Trade orientation training classes, including construction orientation, safety, trade math, blueprint reading and other essential skills an individual needs before entering into an apprenticeship program are all offered. The ODOT grant put an emphasis on recruiting women and minorities and was the first major contract with an outside agency.
On June 30, the ODOT grant will expire. The basic introduction to the trades class will still be offered, but Bowles is unsure about funding sources. What he is sure about is interest. Companies in the area, he said, are very interested in introducing high school students and others to the trades as a possible career choice. And the center is there to provide training in a variety of different trade careers.
Although Bowles said he hates the term "downsizing," much of what has occurred at the Skill Center over the years – budget cuts and decreased staff – led to the contract with ODOT. Once upon a time, the Skill Center relied entirely on money from the PCC general funds. Not so anymore.
"Everyone becomes a recruiter," he said of his staff.
With the relationship with ODOT coming to a close, the heavy emphasis on trades and industry at the center could change. 
"The next relationship could be a heavy emphasis on technology … (the service industry or health care industry)," said Bowles. "We're not limiting ourselves."
But the bottom line remains the same, says James Dawson, a Skill Center math instructor and former student.
"Our mission is to assist citizens, community people, get family wage jobs," he said. "We help them get the foundation of skills to envision a different future."
Dawson himself was lost when he arrived at the Skill Center. And if it hadn't been for a pushy teacher, he might have walked right out the door. Dawson says he was discouraged when he first showed up for a class and didn't think he could make it.
"I got up to leave, when one of the instructors put his hand on my shoulder (and asked me why I was leaving)," said Dawson, who was encouraged to keep with the program by the enthusiastic teacher.
Another sector of society targeted by the Skill Center are those coming out of the criminal justice system.
"We help them see another way out," said Dawson. "Education has transformative properties; it allows them to grow personally and professionally."
Recalling a former student who is now working for ODOT, Dawson said it was her persistence that paid off in the end. Many students of his don't succeed the first time, he said. For them, changing their life through education can be a long-term process.
"Consistency is the key," he said. "It's not the smartest, it's the most persistent who succeed. Failure doesn't mean the end. We take people where they are and work with them. We don't have time for judgment."
Interested in pre-apprenticeship programs offered at the Skill Center? Classes are held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Tuesday in the Technology Education Building at PCC-Cascade. Check in with Katrina Cloud in room 103 or Lorene Wilder in room 124 before the session, or call 503-978-5651 for more information.

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