Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

At Hopeworks, preparing city kids for jobs in a changing Camden

Community groups like Hopeworks could be a pipeline between Camden residents and job opportunities with new companies moving into the city.

"I got the job," Chris Newbill declares.

"My first ever full-time professional gig."

As he tells me about his "moment of elation and validation," Newbill beams.

Hopeworks has successfully executed several contracts to provide GIS and other services to New Jersey American Water, the private utility whose corporate parent, American Water, is building its national headquarters on the Camden Waterfront.

The company is heading to Camden thanks to $164 million in state tax breaks. Several other marquee firms are relocating headquarters or shifting some operations to the city after inking similar incentive deals, including Subaru of America ($118 million), Holtec International ($260 million), the Philadelphia 76ers ($82 million), and Lockheed Martin ($107 million).

The New Jersey division of American Water is not moving to the city. But its relationship with Hopeworks suggests a way that training programs in the community can become a pipeline connecting Camden residents and job opportunities.

Jeremy Kierman, senior project manager at American Water, says in a statement that the company is "working with [waterfront developer] Liberty Property Trust and the city to find opportunities for Camden residents to work on the construction project, and we also are developing additional job opportunities for Camden residents once we move to the city."

The Hopeworks relationship "started with a pilot project a couple of years ago, before we knew about the corporate move," says Christopher R. Kahn, the senior GIS project manager at New Jersey American. "The Hopeworks students did such a good job that we expanded it, and Chris' job came out of that growth."

A musician and devout Christian who grew up and still lives in North Camden, Newbill graduated from the city's Creative Arts High School in 2009 and attended Florida A&M University, where he had planned to major in music education, before dropping out.

"It wasn't for me at the time," he recalls. "I went from job to job and kind of bounced around a little bit. Then my sister told me about Hopeworks. I passed by here every day and never noticed it."

The nonprofit on the 500 block of State Street has worked with more than 3,000 Camden young people since it was founded 16 years ago, executive director Dan Rhoton says.

"We're finding that the [notion] there are no jobs available for Camden residents is a little bit of a red herring. Companies are ecstatic to hire folks from Camden if they have the skills they need," he adds.

"In the last five months, we've had five young people go directly from Hopeworks to full-time employment … cybersecurity, database management, and web development positions, mostly in the city," Rhoton says.

He notes that while many Hopeworks trainees "come through our door having experienced what one would call trauma" associated with growing up in Camden, "our young people are not going to get hired unless we've done our job to help them deal with these barriers."

Says Luis Olivieri, director of the GIS program at Hopeworks: "Most of our young people just need a little push to go in the right direction. Although some need a big push."

Newbill says Olivieri and others at Hopeworks helped guide him, particularly when he found himself intimidated by the technology early on.

"I had a lot of doubt in myself, and what I really needed was to talk to somebody," he says. "I did, and then the determination set in."

"They set me up for success," adds Newbill, who plans to save the money he's making at Hopeworks to help him eventually earn a degree in social work.

"This job is helping me get to my long-term dreams."