Q&A with Albert Lewis Jr., M.Ed., Vice President of Economic & Workforce Development, Tombolo Institute


How did Tombolo Institute come about and what is its mission?

Albert Lewis: We recognized that there’s a skills gap in the Pacific Northwest as it relates to technology training, and that companies are always seeking well-qualified candidates. It used to be that big tech companies were almost exclusively looking for candidates from traditional schools like research institutions and Ivy League schools. But because the demand for skilled workers is so great, they’ve now moved from a degree-only pathway to a skills-based pathway. What they are now saying is, “If you have the skills, we’re interested in talking to you.”

Therefore, we saw the opportunity at Bellevue College to look at our professional development programs, which include classes in our leadership, HR and technology portfolios. We decided to place those portfolios under a separate entity to address the needs of people who are seeking to get into the tech industry but don’t necessarily have a tech background but already have degrees. We are upskilling those people to prepare them for entry-level employment with regional tech companies or with businesses that are looking for tech workers.

Additionally, many local companies, from Amazon, Microsoft and Google to smaller companies throughout the area, are looking to upgrade the skills of their workers so they have more opportunities for promotion.

We have been doing outreach into the business community to understand the needs of those individuals who are looking for professional development opportunities. Because Bellevue College is a community college, we realized there was hesitation on the part of some people with engineering, software development and computer science degrees about considering a community college as a resource to add to their skills. For that reason, we decided to rebrand our offerings. We wanted to communicate to that audience — career-minded people who want to accelerate or transition their careers — that we have innovative programs that are designed to propel tech industry careers forward. And that those programs are taught by skilled industry practitioners who have years of pedagogical experience. The entity we created is called the Tombolo Institute, which was created to meet the needs of busy people who seek high-quality training and education coupled with the flexibility that allows them to work and pursue the skills that employers demand.


Question: How do you get the crucial feedback from industry and individual learners that guides your program development?

Albert Lewis: We have a general advisory council for Tombolo Institute, and additionally, we have one for each of our industry areas. Those advisory councils review our curriculum, provide us with ideas, and give us guidance and direction on how we should move forward.

We also get feedback from our students as they go through the courses. We ask them specifically what they liked about the course. And about the instructor — did they get the instruction they were looking for? And we also ask them about the content. Between student surveys, advisory councils, and ongoing relationships with business and industry, we are able to gather the input that guides us on which curriculum we offer.


Question: What is the mix of educational and training experiences the institute is providing to professionals who seek to advance their careers?

Albert Lewis: Let me first address our open enrollment, which comprises three portfolios of instruction and classes: technology, business and healthcare.

Within our technology portfolio, we offer classes in business and desktop applications, cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity, data analytics, design and UX, digital marketing, project management, software programming and testing, and technical writing.

Under business, we offer human resource (HR) training, leadership and communication, Lean Six Sigma, project management, real estate, SAFe ScrumMaster Certification, Certified ScrumMaster Certification, and Certified Scrum Product Owner

In our healthcare portfolio, we offer lean healthcare, AIDS/HIV training, registered nurse refresher courses and a course that explores topics related to medical marijuana.

Any of our open enrollment courses can be customized for on-site corporate training.


Question: What is it about Tombolo Institute’s learning experience that is unique?

Albert Lewis: There are two things that make the learning experience at Tombolo Institute unique. One, classes are experiential, which means they are designed for hands-on exercises and practice. The second thing is our instructors are industry experts. They actually work in local companies. Therefore, they bring real industry experience into the classroom. This means when a student asks a question, they don’t get a theoretical answer. They get an answer that was garnered by hard work and experience. They get a perspective from someone who has implemented solutions in their workplace. I think that’s huge. It means the instructor has credibility and can provide real-world scenarios. We like to say that at Tombolo Institute, instruction happens at the intersection of theory and practice.


Question: How is Tombolo Institute helping regional employers identify and address their skills gap?

Albert Lewis: Our 6D assessment process, which stands for Discover, Diagnose, Design, Develop, Deliver, Discuss, is a strategic process we use to assess and deliver the right training solution. By “right,” I mean one that specifically and measurably addresses a business need. We are committed to getting to know the organization and understanding their challenges and their performance and efficiency gaps, which allows us to design and implement the best solution possible for them.

During Discover, we explore the strategic challenges facing the organization and which employees are to be trained. What we are looking for in this phase is the “why.” Is the issue enhancing employee productivity? Improving teamwork and collaboration? Reducing employee turnover?

In the Diagnosis phase, we assess the capability of their team to benefit from the training. Often, you can find out during the discovery phase and diagnosis that the organization might not be committed to the training. That’s when you must start asking the tough questions: Who’s going to be trained, when are they going to be trained, has there been a budget set aside for this training, what are the outcomes you’re looking for, what does success look like. You really want to understand those things before developing a training program.

Once we understand their challenges and what success looks like to the organization, we then identify who’s going to be trained. We can then set a timeline to begin the training, for example in the next 30 to 90 days. Once we have that commitment, we then proceed to the program Design phase during which we define the solution based on the feedback we get from them.

For each organization we work with, we go through the same process, because each organization is unique, and so each solution will be unique to that organization.


Question: What role do noncredit programs play?

Albert Lewis: The question is, what is the goal of the organization, what is the goal of the individual? If an individual is seeking to validate their education or knowledge through a degree program, the college has that. And if the person is seeking to validate their skills through taking a course and receiving certification, we offer that option as well. The noncredit versus credit option is about providing options that meet the learner’s needs.


Question: Do the noncredit programs you offer enable you to be more agile to meet the short-term training needs of employers?

Albert Lewis: Yes. It allows us to move very fast when we need to. If a company comes to us and says, “I’ve got 30 people I’d like to put through the project management certificate program,” we have the ability not only to deliver that, but we also have the ability to customize it to their environment.

For example, Lean Six Sigma is based on a set of principles that are intended to reduce waste and improve efficiency. But in order to bring it to life within the organization, we need to make sure the training is contextualized to their specific environment. Additionally, we have to make sure we understand what the organizational needs are in terms of outcomes and how we can adjust the training to meet those needs.

In a for-credit class you can’t make those adjustments. You have to deliver the curriculum to be consistent with what has been approved by the college’s curriculum advisory committee and the accreditors. So you’re somewhat constrained. Whereas with noncredit, you’re not constrained. You can take a curriculum and morph it to better fit the needs of the student, the learner and the organization.


Question: What types of certificates or credentials can the learners earn at Tombolo Institute?

Albert Lewis: Students at Tombolo Institute can earn several different types of certificates. Our Scrum master product owner certificate and our project management program are both very popular. Students can also earn Amazon Web Academy certificates. We offer certificates for UX/UI design, technical writing, cybersecurity (through CompTIA) and Microsoft Professional products. In the area of financial services, students can earn a Certified Financial Planning Certificate (CFP). And lastly, we teach the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) certificate program.


Question: How is Tombolo Institute uniquely positioned to advance the region’s economic growth?

Albert Lewis: Let me start by saying that we are anchored by Bellevue College. We are committed to seeing the community prosper from an educational and economic development perspective. We are part of the community and we’re not going anywhere. The Tombolo Institute’s strength begins and ends with Bellevue College’s commitment to the community.

The other part of our strength is that our instructors all work in industry. This means you’re working with practitioners. Additionally, we have the physical and virtual infrastructure to support learners in whatever modality suits their needs. Our capacity, capability and pricing make us very competitive with the services offered by any of the private consulting firms, many of which do not have the deep commitment that we have to the community.

From an economic development perspective, we provide a pipeline of skilled, local job candidates for local companies like Amazon. Microsoft, and others. Because we train local residents, our students have a tendency to stay local and work local. This means we can potentially help reduce turnover by training local residents who have a commitment to the community — those who want to be here and want to advance their careers and their skills. It comes back to the fact that we are connected to the community and are committed to its prosperity.