NPower Canada’s BC expansion gets underserved youth into tech careers

By James Matthew, Vancouver Tech Journal – January 20, 2022.

NPower Canada’s BC expansion gets underserved youth into tech careers

For Pallavi Garg, a job at her local Save-On-Foods was perfect until it wasn’t. She enjoyed spending time with her coworkers and meeting new people. Plus, it was a nice departure from a lifetime of schooling, the 21-year-old thought. Despite this, Garg couldn’t help but think this wasn’t her passion, that it wasn’t her calling.

Garg grew up in India and recently arrived in Vancouver, taking the Save-On-Foods gig to help her acclimate to Canadian culture. When I asked her over Zoom to reminisce about her upbringing, only one facet rose to the fore: school. “I was always studying, just focused on studying. My school was really competitive. No games, nothing else—just focus on studying. We weren’t even allowed to go on breaks, they were like, ‘we’ll get you everything in the class, just stay in the class,’” Garg recalls.

Garg kept the momentum going and completed a science degree in the Indian post-secondary system. Eager for a new experience, Garg moved to Canada. The move happened so quickly that it felt like it occurred “by accident,” she says. After dropping off a number of cold resumes, she heard back from the Save-On-Foods. She was bagging groceries and commuting to Aisle 5 in no time.

While Garg speaks highly of the role the job played in acclimating her to Canadian culture and expanding her social circle—“I grew a lot and I have seen a great difference in myself,” she says–Garg wanted to build on what she studied back home in India, where she took some computer science courses and received a diploma in the subject. Unsure of how this would translate to Canada, Garg again hit the books. Digital ones, this time.

Udemy and YouTube tabs filled her browser and eventually, she came across a program offering youth opportunities to gain introductory tech skills. Garg had been put on the graveyard shift at her grocery gig, which she said gave her the ease of knowing at least her days were free. Also free was the course. “Well, I’m not losing anything, let’s just give it a try, right?” Garg thought as she finished her application.

The organization she applied to? NPower Canada. NPower was originally founded in the U.S. in the early 2000s before a Canadian entity was launched in 2014. The organization is in place to do just what the name suggests: empower. Namely, youth from underserved communities into tech careers. NPower Canada offers them free tech training programs and IT certifications through a 15-week course. In addition to the Google and Microsoft certifications, participants in the cohorts receive support in landing a job in tech, the ultimate goal of the program. Post-hire coaching plus access to corporate mentors and guest speakers help the youth along their journey.

To oversee that 2014 International expansion, the organization looked north to Toronto and found the city had a lot of the right characteristics for the program: large tech sector, large financial sector, high youth unemployment rate. So NPower tapped executive Julia Blackburn to launch its Canadian operations.

Blackburn recalls that on day one in August 2014, there was only herself and COO Andrew Reddin. When they needed a space, Ryerson University offered up a few classrooms. It was fitting that NPower sought to launch youth into tech careers as the organization had a similar feel to the companies they were hoping to find job placements within.

“I’ve worked with nonprofits for a long time, but mostly in the performing arts,” Blackburn admits. “I didn’t have any background in youth services or unemployment services but Andrew had all of that background. I had a background in startups, nonprofit fundraising, nonprofit management operations—it’s like this little startup, but we already had seed money and we already had an idea. It was really exciting.”

The model that was used to launch NPower Canada was mandated to serve 100 youth per year, in two cohorts of 50 each. Immediately, though, Blackburn sought to scale the program. “We really wanted to help as many people as we possibly could. It’s such an effective and proven program. It’s very measurable, it either works or it doesn’t work,” Blackburn says. “More times than not, it works. 80 percent of the youth that come into the program graduate from the program. 84 percent, right now, of those youth are placed within three to six months into a meaningful job. So we’re really proud of that.”

Spurred on by these successes, NPower expanded from Toronto as if reading from right to left on a map of Canada. It arrived at the Pacific Ocean in September 2021, opening up shop in Vancouver and Victoria. That desire to scale shines through even seven years later for Blackburn. The shift to virtual courses due to COVID is also beneficial.

“We started with 70 youth in our first cohort in Vancouver. But we see huge growth potential in the whole area, not just in the city proper. Now that we’re delivering the program virtually, as long as there’s a job—that’s our ultimate goal. It’s not a training program, training is a means to an end for us. It’s only one element of our program–so as long as there’s a job waiting, we can go anywhere now. So there have been some silver linings for us with COVID going from the classroom model to a virtual model. That’s actually been quite good for us,” Blackburn shares.

So good, in fact, that the 84 youth that came through the program in NPower’s first full year of operations has swelled to over 1,500 since the cross-Canada expansion. Closer to home, the first Vancouver cohort ran from September to December. By June, NPower hopes that 80 percent of those 80 will get jobs. Currently, just a few weeks into January, 16 percent have already been placed. Demographically, over 80 percent of the cohort come from racialized communities. Gender parity is just under 50 percent. 4 percent are Indigenous, while 10 percent identify as LGBTQ.

“We’re really looking for youth in the community that have barriers to employment,” Blackburn says. “We find that those youth often lack post-secondary education or international education, or don’t have a strong work history and resume to build upon. They often just don’t have the soft skills to present what skills they do have. Plus, just the fact that you’re from a racialized community means your unemployment rate could be two, three times greater than the average in your community.”

With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Garg completed her application for NPower’s first Vancouver cohort. She was calmed by the low barriers to entry and felt she put together a strong enough application. After a quick interview, she was in and started the 15-week program on September 20. For Blackburn, Garg’s journey is emblematic of who the program seeks to empower and what they hope to get out of it.

“She’s a newcomer woman,” Blackburn says of Garg. “She is young. She had an unrelated degree. She has minor local experience. They think they’re going to come here to have a better life and they can’t break into the market. That’s one of the keys to success in our program, the training portion of our program–the soft skills.”

While NPower’s overarching goals are to ensure diverse participation and land applicants jobs, Garg’s energy was more just happy to be here when she started the program. “I came in thinking that I would get something, some knowledge—but I wasn’t expecting a job. [I applied] just for the experience,” she recalls.

As an added bonus, Garg will soon be trading Save-On-Foods for Vancity and starting her tech career on their service desk as an IT technician. As excited as she is to start her new role later this month, her go-to memories from the program are the fellow members of the cohort.

Every Wednesday, the cohort met for a session called Personal and Professional. They were taught tips to manage stress. They learned how to navigate working from home. They fleshed out the last sections of a resumé that help you make a personal connection with an employer. As the 15 weeks drew on, these Wednesday sessions delved deeper into the personal lives of the cohort. “It’s like a personal experience with a friend,” Garg shared. “We’re still in touch about the job search. So that’s my favorite moment, making more friends and having a great network.”

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