Next Doors: Forging New Paths

Phoenix is booming in a bunch of different ways.

The tech sector is exploding, thanks to an influx of investment by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Intel and others. Our healthcare industry is expanding to meet the needs of a growing — and aging — population. Phoenix is becoming a hub for new-economy industries such as cybersecurity. Opportunities abound for young people plotting their career paths forward.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for those in minority communities, especially women. Due to a variety of factors, lower-income Black and Latina women often don’t have the same exposure to new industries as males or white people in general. The result is that they may miss out on high-wage jobs, even in a booming economy.

That lack of exposure and opportunity is part of the reason Black and Latina women make less than their white male counterparts — for every dollar a white male makes, a Black woman makes 64 cents. Latina women make 53 cents in comparison.

So when Valley of the Sun United Way invested funding to help address the wage gap, it convened a broad team of agencies to do something about it.

The result is the Pathways to Economic Opportunity program, a collaboration between Valley of the Sun United Way, ElevateEdAZ, Chicanos Por La Causa, Center for the Future of Arizona, Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation, YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix, Southwest Human Development, Pipeline AZ and school districts across the Valley.

The goal: improve professional skills and expand exposure to new careers by providing externships, internships and apprenticeships to young Black and Latina women.

“We’re really trying to get more individuals into high-wage, high-demand pathways,” said Jennifer Mellor, chief innovation officer for the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation. “As an example, if we look at manufacturing, there are very few women in the sector. We are trying to get more women to go into pathways into those opportunities, and we’re trying to bring in some successful women from the industry to talk about those careers as an encouragement to young women.”

The program launched in the fall of 2022 and goes beyond just providing externships and internships to ensuring participants have support for their education and life needs. They can get gas cards if needed, equipment or uniforms they may need for work, or childcare to help support their families. Students also get college and career preparation, including résumé work and counseling on job skills. 

“Some are students, some are mothers who may be returning to the workforce,” Mellor said. “Some of those projects have been really cool, assessing differing threats, and have been very rewarding. A number of those externs have been able to get internships or full-time job opportunities as a result.”

For example, six externs participated in the IT and cybersecurity externship. During this two-week externship, students had an opportunity to hear from a variety of different employers, see the different opportunities in IT and cybersecurity, work on a project with other externs and present that project at their final convening.

“There is an exposure gap when it comes to students understanding what they want to do in the future,” said Kaycie Quinonez, district director of ElevateEdAZ, who serves as program manager for the initiative. “We’re ensuring students have access to resources and meaningful work experiences that allow them to get exposure while they are still in high school so they can explore careers that they maybe didn’t know existed before or are nontraditional.”

Externships are paid, so students don’t have to choose between new work opportunities and jobs that may help support their families. 

Quinonez said one of the biggest things she’s seen from students is the increased knowledge of the field they are interested in — as well as the development of soft skills that are so important in careers. “Sometimes students find out they aren’t into the fields they are going into, which is important to learn as well, but they still get skills and career capabilities out of it,” she said.  

As the program expands, the partner agencies have a simple request — they need more businesses to take part and offer externship and internship opportunities, as well as mentoring and training. Interested companies can learn more on the ElevateEdAZ website. 

Despite the initiative’s newness, the future is bright, thanks to the collaboration between the agencies making Pathways to Economic Opportunity a reality. 

“I think there’s a real passion and commitment for this type of work,” Quinonez said, “and getting our Black and Latina young women interested in these opportunities and making that impact on the trajectory of their future.”

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and the Senior Vice President at Lumen Strategies
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