Gina Plata Finds Joy Improving Career Mobility for Underemployed Boston Residents
By Julie Bos, ECMC Foundation Contributing Writer
Gina Plata knows the life-changing value of postsecondary education and the importance of being able to shift gears in a career.
As a young girl raised in Mexico, she watched her father retire from professional soccer in his mid-30s and reinvent himself in a new career path. Without any postsecondary education credentials, his options were limited. He decided to pursue entrepreneurship, where he started and ran a restaurant with Gina’s mother until he passed away when Gina was just a teenager.
After his passing, Gina and her family immigrated to the U.S. and settled near Boston for a new start. Gina quickly realized she needed to reinvent herself. Although she had a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico and two years of work experience under her belt, most American companies use a postsecondary credential from the U.S. as a proxy to determine career readiness.
Unsure of her next steps, Gina found work as a GED tutor, and later, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Mujeres Unidas Avanzando, a nonprofit organization serving local Latino women.
“That’s where I found my passion working with immigrants through education,” she said. “But I realized that if I wanted to move up professionally, I would need an advanced degree from the United States.”
Finding a suitable program, however, wasn’t easy.
“I needed a college program I could afford; one that didn’t require a standardized entrance exam, which I likely wouldn’t pass due to the language barrier; and one I could do while I was working full-time,” she said. “The options were limited.”
Gina found the right fit at Northeastern University, where she first earned a certificate in nonprofit management, and later, a master’s degree in Leadership and Management for Nonprofit Organizations.
Four years later, Gina moved with her husband and daughters to Philadelphia, where she served as Director of Adult Education for Project H.O.M.E., an organization focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
“For the first time, I became very aware of the poverty and homelessness issues in the U.S.,” she said. “I wasn’t just working with immigrants in my own community; I was working with people born in the U.S. who still experienced social issues like poverty, homelessness, mental health and recovery. It was a transformational experience for me—one that expanded my interest and passion to work on larger social problems and help break the cycle of poverty through access to education.”
After Gina’s family moved back to Boston in 2014, she found a position that integrated all of her skills and passions. She joined the staff of Just-A-Start (JAS), a community development organization dedicated to building the economic stability of low- to moderate-income people in local communities.
Her timing was perfect. JAS was developing a strategic plan to expand its free adult workforce development services beyond its original Biomedical Careers Program, which began 26 years ago.
Gina Plata (right) with Just-A-Start program participant (left).
With support from ECMC Foundation, JAS conducted research to identify the right industry. As a result, JAS launched its Information Technology (IT) Careers Program in 2017. Training in the IT sector was identified as having the most potential for employment and career growth—plus, it addressed a need that was unmet by other local training providers. This program allows JAS to serve a larger number of under-resourced adults and provide new career opportunities for individuals trying to move into middle-skill jobs to achieve upward economic mobility.
Grants from ECMC Foundation supported the research and launch of the IT Careers Program, and will continue to support the program through 2019.
The program is a free, nine-month educational and career skills program that prepares low- to moderate-income adults for computer support positions in a business environment.
The IT Careers Program partners with Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) to provide some of the technical skills classes. Students earn sixteen college credits toward the PC Hardware Specialist Certificate Program at BHCC. The JAS IT program also includes individualized career counseling, soft skills training and the option to obtain industry-recognized credentials and certificates (i.e., CompTIA A+ and Network+) that are stackable.
“This program offers a solution both for low-income adults who are either unemployed or underemployed, who want to access a dynamic industry with great potential for growth and mobility; and it also offers a business solution for companies seeking tech-savvy talent and a more diversified workforce,” said Gina.
“We have access to a [diverse] population,” she added. “The individuals whom we serve are mostly immigrants who have demonstrated their maturity level and their prior work experience. Many have a college degree from their home countries and like me, aren’t able to do much with it. They need other credentials that enable them to reinvent themselves and advance in their career.”
The first cohort of the IT Careers Program graduated in September 2018, and 13 of the 15 graduates are in full-time jobs. The second cohort—another 18 adult students—started in December and will complete their program in August 2019.
Cohort I of Just-A-Start IT Careers Program at graduation in 2018
Gina couldn’t be more excited for the program’s success, and what the future may hold for JAS and its students.
“I’m hoping that we’ll see great growth and expansion in the next few years—not only serving more students, but also training for more career tracks within our existing industries, and even expansion into new industries,” she said. “Nothing could be more rewarding.”