For some, career paths are paved and peppered with signs leading straight to their destination’s door. But for others, the path was never laid at all.
Guiding New Jersey’s youth through untrodden career territory is Hopeworks Camden. The tech education nonprofit trains, and pays, youth ages 17 through 26 to do basic coding and design work with the ultimate goal of placing them in full-time, high-wage jobs.
“Getting into tech is tough for anyone, but especially without the right background” said Annie Rose Webb, the org’s director of web development. “Some of our students are also getting their GED in the process — which we help with — or dealing with housing or food insecurity.”
Webb runs Hopeworks’ web department, one of three social enterprises — cause-driven businesses that reinvest profits into their social or environmental mission — that offer six-month paid internships after completion of a training program. The web internship in particular includes advanced tech training, skill building and instruction in areas they may not have been exposed to yet, such as accessibility, UX principles and browser responsiveness.
With coaching, the internship helps develop essential soft skills that many of the participants weren’t exposed to growing up, like managing conflict in the workplace or communicating professionally with supervisors.
“A lot of our interns never had examples of what professionalism looks like,” Webb said. “Our job is making those expectations clear. For those who haven’t had experience keeping a healthy relationship with an adult, we explain what boundaries look like, what professional relationships look like.”
"Hopeworks is one of the first places I’ve worked where there’s never a flicker of doubt I'm making a difference."
Luis Olivieri, director of the geographic information systems (GIS) business, left a long career as a university researcher and professor to work with the young people at Hopeworks. He works with GIS interns for as long as it takes to prepare them for outside jobs, sometimes up to two years.
“Years ago, I had a teacher that pushed me in the right direction,” said Olivieri. “Now I’m providing the support. I am doing everything possible to get our youth ready to move forward. This isn’t just about earning a paycheck.”
In addition to skills and life-preparedness training, Hopeworks also provides safe and secure housing for working alumni and current interns through its Community Responding in Belief (CRIB) residence — community-style residential living that offers support and accountability. All of Hopeworks’ programs, from its internships to CRIB, are run by employees who have undergone trauma-informed training and are equipped to work with youths who have been exposed to trauma.
“It’s about fundamentally changing the way you speak to people,” Webb said. “You never lower your expectations, but you do change the way in which you introduce concepts and jargon. It’s about being kind.”
Through her work, Webb has found that one silver lining of otherwise dark circumstances can be empathy. Having introduced the concept of accessibility in technology — color contrast for vision-impaired people; clean, intuitive interfaces for the older population — to many over the years, she said the idea isn’t always welcomed with open arms. But that hasn’t been the case with her Hopeworks’ interns.
“What’s nice about working with a team coming from a place where they’ve experienced trauma is that they embrace accessibility immediately,” she said. “They understand why things need to work for everyone; that not everyone is working with the same set of tools. They are very invested in that part.”
For their persistently impactful work, both Webb and Olivieri have been honored on Technical.ly’s RealLIST Engineers lists, in 2019 and 2020, respectively. While neither anticipated the public recognition, they do understand the significance of what they are doing.
“Hopeworks is one of the first places I’ve worked where there’s never a flicker of doubt I’m making a difference,” said Webb. “The way it supports youth, the willingness of our leadership to instantly pivot or change to become more impactful. We’re uniquely staffed with people who are single minded in our mission.”
“We run a very professional business,” said Olivieri. “We teach our interns to behave professionally. We teach them ethics. When they complete the internship, they are ready to work anywhere. When they get out there, they know what to do.”
Interested in guiding our youth toward successful futures, hiring an intern or volunteering your time and skills? Take a look at the many ways to get involved with Hopeworks.-30-