With Citizens Bank Grant, Per Scholas in Newark Teaches Tech Skills to Foster Equity and Inclusion

Earlier this spring, Citizens Bank (Providence, R.I.) announced several new regional workforce partnerships with organizations in Hudson and Essex counties, through the Citizens Charitable Foundation and the Citizens Philanthropic Foundation.

The bank committed $350,000 to support much-needed technical training and career counseling across the state, working with Greater Newark LISC, Urban League of Essex County, Per Scholas and Year Up New Jersey.

We spoke to Jessica Zorola, managing director of Per Scholas Newark, about that nonprofit’s participation in the grant program. The organization received $50,000 from the Citizens Philanthropic Foundation for its Per Scholas Alumni Upskilling program, with a focus on providing continued support to program alumni to help them advance further in their careers in the rapidly evolving tech world.

Jessica Zorola, managing director of Per Scholas Newark | Per Scholas

Per Scholas is headquartered in the Bronx and has been in operation for 25 years. It opened in Newark in 2019, and has branches in more than 20 cities across the U.S. The Newark headquarters is located near Harriet Tubman Square.

“We are committed to advancing equity and increasing opportunity by unlocking potential in individuals, families and communities through technical skill training. We offer tuition-free training in the most in-demand technical skills companies need today. Think IT support; cybersecurity; AWS [Amazon Web Services] re/Start, a cloud course; software engineering; and Java development. Per Scholas offers those courses, and many more,” said Zorola.

“Nationwide, 85 percent of Per Scholas learners identify as people of color, and in Newark it is about 95 percent. We’re seeing that more than 40 percent identify as women, and over half have a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment,” Zorola told us.

Giving Per Scholas Alumni in NJ a Way to Move Up

“As a result of the investment from the Citizens Philanthropic Foundation, Per Scholas is going to be able to grow our alumni upskilling offerings for individuals here in Newark and the surrounding New York City metro area,” she added.

“People who have ‘graduated’ from Per Scholas want the opportunity to move around in the tech industry, and to qualify to move up the ranks. If you think about careers in tech, they are constantly changing and evolving, so learners need to acquire more industry-recognized certifications, building a little bit more of that skill set to build careers over time.”

Zorola told us a story about someone who had trained with Per Scholas, and then experienced a family tragedy. She knew she had to step up her game because she was now responsible for supporting more family members. She interviewed with Per Scholas, enrolled in the AWS re/Start program and graduated with the important credential of AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner. She is now working with Prudential Financial in Newark as an associate scrum master. “I share her story because it’s like many of the stories of our alumni completing the training, but the journey doesn’t end there,” said Zorola.

We asked how the nonprofit gets the word out about the courses it is offering, and Zorola replied that the instructors at the program make sure to inform current learners of these opportunities. Also, “Per Scholas Newark collaborates with local institutions like United Way of Greater Newark, NewarkWORKS, Newark Alliance, United Community Corporation, La Casa de Don Pedro, and the Wight Foundation, among others.  We also ensure that everyone in the workforce development ecosystem within Greater Newark knows of our services and our training.”

Bringing Equity to Tech Employment in North Jersey

She also said that the nonprofit has been able to utilize social media to extend opportunities to potential students. “We find that a lot of our prospective learners want to know ‘the day in the life’ of somebody who’s in the program, or the ‘day in the life’ of somebody who’s gone through our program and come out the other side. Letting our alumni talk about their journey is how we find people, because, really, they’re the ones who sell the program.”

Zorola emphasized how important the Citizens grants are to the people of North Jersey, especially Newark, for bringing equity to tech employment here. “Last week, I attended the panel that Citizens convened, and I was hearing from other nonprofit leaders. One of them, in particular, was our chief development officer, Caitlyn Brazill. And the discussion focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities facing this region, and solutions for the workforce.

“One of the major challenges Caitlyn brought up — and it’s one of the things that I am very strongly passionate about — is highlighting the lack of representation in tech right now and really understanding that, although there may be 3,000 unique technical job postings, and all these different employers asking for tech and looking to close these open roles, where is the diversity in tech? How are they sourcing that diversity?

“When I talk with our learners and alumni, I’m very open and honest about addressing the challenges of this lack of representation. You know, only 4 percent of technologists nationwide identify as women of color like myself.  So, when I have my learners in the classroom and hear their stories, it can feel very impactful and powerful because they are bringing in that representation that is missing in tech.”

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