Landing On Your Feet After Falling Through The 'Opportunity Gap'

Originally published on January 4, 2015 10:54 am
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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Across the country, people and places are being transformed by choice or circumstance. We're telling some of their stories this month in a series called Starting Over. In this latest installment, we go to Seattle, where the average unemployment rate for people under the age of 25 is more than twice the national average. Carolyn Adolph of KUOW reports on a young woman who changed her life by bridging the opportunity gap - that space between wanting a better life and actually getting it.

CAROLYN ADOLPH, BYLINE: Thuy Pham's days used to end with a bus commute from her job in Seattle's International District to her home.

THUY PHAM: And I usually take number 60.

ADOLPH: There was an advertisement on that bus.

PHAM: I saw it, like, every day.

ADOLPH: It said something about an opportunity gap and offering a way to get past it.

PHAM: I don't understand it at all until one day that I really tired. And I feel like - I think, like, when this life going to change?

ADOLPH: Pham had a part-time job making sandwiches at this deli.

PHAM: I'm making bahn mi over there. So I standing ready and making for them.

ADOLPH: Pham and her parents immigrated here from Vietnam five years ago. This was the way she was supporting herself.

PHAM: Putting the food on the table. But at the same time, I also understand that without a education, I cannot - I cannot move on from this job. I cannot, you know, like, move up the career.

ADOLPH: It took time, but eventually she called the number in the ad on that bus. A free work training program called Year Up accepted her. It promises half a year of job skills training, and then half a year of company internship - a big, tough year.

PHAM: There are some student cannot get through the program. The first six months, I don't let it make me feel down. I still keep going.

ADOLPH: Then, she landed here - the business intelligence unit of Microsoft.

PHAM: The first day that I sit over there, we talking, like, the whole day.

EOIN GALLAGHER: You know, our first conversation was interesting when we simply said, look, whatever it is you want, you can do. There's no reason to limit yourself here.

ADOLPH: This is Eoin Gallagher, Pham's boss during her internship - more than that. After her internship, he helped her find her first job. In Seattle, Microsoft competes heavily with other tech companies for talent. It needs a bigger pool of trained people to pull from. But Gallagher says bringing in people from all kinds of backgrounds is good for the technology industry.

GALLAGHER: And the fresh ideas and the fresh approach and just the ability to question why. It's important, and Thuy showed those traits all the way up the organization as I exposed her to more and more senior people.

ADOLPH: This whole process is part of an umbrella project at Microsoft called Youth Spark, a group of programs creating opportunities for young people worldwide. That advertisement on Pham's bus was part of it. And now she has $45,000 a year job. It was so much more than she was making at that deli. She was going to stop there, but Gallagher has convinced her to go for a four-year degree.

GALLAGHER: Not just for something on your resume but for that learning.

ADOLPH: That ability to develop.

GALLAGHER: The sky's the limit here.

PHAM: My friends - they said that I got lucky.

ADOLPH: But Pham says, actually, no.

PHAM: It's not only lucky. I'm working really hard.

ADOLPH: Thuy Pham is starting her bachelor's degree in computer systems this month. For NPR News, I'm Carolyn Adolph in Redmond, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.