In Camden, Bridging the Skills Gap Means More than Tech Training
When we reach the second floor, Lowe and Lucas Valentine, who have volunteered to show me around the place, whisk me into an unadorned conference room where the students and staff huddle each morning. “We basically ask five questions: How are you feeling today? How do you want to feel at the end of the day? What’s on your safety plan? What’s your goal for the day? And who can help encourage you?” Lowe, 19, says, explaining the morning routine. “Even if you are feeling down, you can check in. They don’t want you to be upset.”
This kumbaya moment isn’t the only indicator that this place, Hopeworks ‘N Camden, is not a typical tech-training program. There are no beanbag chairs or foosball tables. There is, however, a framed photo of a bicycling Jesuit priest, Father Jeff Putthoff, who co-founded Hopeworks in 2000. There’s also the smell of homemade bread wafting from the kitchen, baked to ensure that no one at Hopeworks, including the 20 to 30 percent of students who are homeless, goes hungry at lunchtime. There’s an on-site “life readiness coach,” who is trained in trauma-informed counseling. And there’s the $750 that Hopeworks pays students who complete the course, rather than the other way around.
With nearly half a million computing jobs going unfilled this year, according to Code.org, everyone from Google to the White House is eager to emphasize tech training. It’s offered in the name of closing the so-called “skills gap,” and giving a more diverse set of people, beyond Silicon Valley and New York City, a crack at lucrative careers in tech. But Hopeworks’ founders and staff recognized nearly two decades ago that propelling people into the tech workforce from communities like Camden, notorious for its high rates of poverty and crime, requires a lot more than just teaching them to code.
“They’ve been hurt,” says Dan Rhoton, Hopeworks’ executive director. “If you help them heal from what’s happened, they can do pretty amazing things.”
Hence the huddles. At first, they seemed foreign to Lowe. She’d heard about Hopeworks from a friend, and came looking primarily for a paycheck. “I had to get used to this idea,” she says. “I was like, ‘What? Tell you how I’m feeling?’”
As it turned out, she had plenty to share. When she was in second grade, she says, her mother developed schizophrenia and morphed from a loving caretaker who walked her kids to school and supervised their homework to a virtual stranger who threw knives at her children and beat them daily. Within a year, Lowe moved in with her father and half-sister, who had suffered her own tragedy, losing her biological mother to a car accident. Years later, when Lowe’s father went to jail for several months, it was on Lowe and her aunt to care for her little sister.
She’d dreamed of getting a college degree and becoming a graphic designer, but Lowe felt guilty prioritizing herself. Hopeworks’ on-site counselor, Lillian Rorick, has helped her work through it, she says. “I have this thing where I feel like I need to ask for permission to do things for myself,” Lowe explains. “Lillian says, ‘Ask me, and I’ll always say yes.’”
The training program at Hopeworks takes an average of four to eight weeks; students work at their own pace. Once they complete the courses, students are eligible for internships both at Hopeworks and at companies in Camden and neighboring Philadelphia. Hopeworks has its own web-development shop and a team that specializes in geographic information systems, both of which work with paying clients including Subaru and New Jersey American Water, generating revenue that gets funneled back into the growing nonprofit.
“When they leave here, they have a portfolio of work so they can show these five websites they built during their internship,” says Manuel Torres, director of business development at Hopeworks, who scouts new clients for the organization. “They’re not just filing papers.”
On average, 78 percent of students complete the tech training, and within a year, 60 percent are employed either full-time, or part-time while finishing college, according to Rhoton. Last year, 55 students finished the program, and 59 students and interns landed jobs.
In addition to tech training and counseling, Hopeworks arranges tutoring to improve students’ math and language skills. If housing is an issue—and it is for many Hopeworks students—the organization has a home next door, nicknamed the Crib, where interns can live for $375 a month. Most of the money is returned to interns as a nest egg once they move out. Hopeworks also helps students apply for college scholarships and works with the local Cooper University Healthcare system to help students earn college credits toward a degree in medical billing and coding.
This holistic approach to tech training has earned Hopeworks national attention. The organization was recently named one of five Tech Impact All-Stars of 500 applicants in a contest sponsored by Comcast-NBC Universal and NationSwell, a media company focused on social good. “What we saw in Hopeworks was a really good, high-quality tech-training program, married with some of the most effective emotional, social developmental programs we’ve seen,” says Greg Behrman, founder of NationSwell. “It feels like what they’re doing in Camden is something that ought to be in operation in every city across America.”
Hopeworks officials say it’s not easy to categorize what they’re doing. “We’re going to meet you where you are whether you’re homeless or coming out of the justice system. We’ll work with you until you’re ready, then we’ll deliver you to an employer,” Rhoton says. “Our mission is not to fill tech jobs. Our mission is to change the trajectory of lives.”
So far, that seems to be working for both Lowe and Valentine. Like Lowe, Valentine’s mother suffered from mental illness, and he grew up in a foster home, where he faced physical abuse, and became dependent on drugs and alcohol. He didn’t graduate high school until he was 20 years old, and struggled to hold jobs, working at UPS for a week, taking another gig at Walgreen’s for four months. Now, at 22, he’s angling for a spot in Hopeworks’ Cooper University program, hoping to parlay those credits into a college degree. “I get the opportunity to actually go to college,” he says. “I think that’s like, ‘Wow.'”