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Bridge to Employment at 30: A vision that has endured

Lisa Johnson, Director, National Institute for Work and Learning and Amanda McMahon, Director, College and Career Readiness, National Institute for Work and Learning

Thirty years ago, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) established a healthcare-focused youth development and employee engagement initiative that today continues to be one of its signature corporate programs around the world. J&J started close to home, establishing the first Bridge to Employment (BTE) program in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1992. From BTE’s inception, it was the vision and commitment of Michael Bzdak, Global Director of Employee Engagement, sustained over three decades, that continues to impact youth, employees, and communities.  BTE focuses its resources on youth living in historically marginalized communities to increase the number of students who enroll in higher education and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, manufacturing, and design (STEM2D). J&J took advantage of New Brunswick’s abundant assets – J&J employees, hospitals, pharmaceutical and research centers, the Rutgers Cancer Institute, and a large science and tech presence – to focus on preparing youth for health-related education and careers.

The BTE model involves assembling a group of local partners – a local J&J operating company, a local school, an institution of higher education, and a non-profit organization – that cooperate to design and deliver programs that ignite and excite students’ interest in STEM2D subjects. The partners provide 40 to 50 participating high school students approximately eight hours of activities per month for three years. Each BTE site offers similar activities, but they each design their own events to meet the needs of their local student community. In recent years, there have been about 25 participating sites worldwide annually. In 2022, BTE will launch its 100th global site in Prague, Czech Republic.

J&J employee volunteers drive BTE by serving as mentors and career coaches, hosting company visits, conducting after school science and college and career activities, leading field trips, and more. By being part of BTE, J&J staff can build their own leadership and supervisory skills while serving young people. In 2020 alone, 305 J&J volunteers served 842 students worldwide, for a total of 4,076 volunteer hours. Sixty-three percent of students served were young women. BTE has created a legacy of employees’ giving back and living the J&J Credo in the communities where they live and work. These volunteers have changed people’s lives directly by their mentorship or their career coaching.

For almost 20 years, FHI 360’s NIWL (National Institute for Work and Learning) has had the privilege to serve as J&J’s managing partner providing technical assistance and support that enables the volunteers, community partners, and students to have rich and productive interactions. We worked closely with J&J to facilitate the onboarding of BTE’s first international site in Cork, Ireland (2005) and have propelled the program’s continuous expansion to the Asia Pacific region, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. By the end of 2021, J&J had launched BTE programs in more than 25 countries.

Working closely with J&J staff, NIWL leads the following BTE activities:

  • Strategic planning
  • Recruiting for and onboarding of new sites
  • Volunteer training
  • Development of learning materials, college and career readiness resources, and eLearning modules
  • Technical assistance to each global BTE location
  • Student recruitment, engagement, and retention research -based strategies
  • Management of annual convenings and communities of practice
  • Data collection and global cross-site evaluation

Working with J&J staff, NIWL initiated recent enhancements to the BTE model such as redesigning activities for online and remote access in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and adding a global Youth Leadership Council to amplify student voices, receive program feedback, and provide further growth opportunities for exceptional program participants.

Looking ahead, we will work with J&J management to further enhance BTE by increasing youth voices, enabling more youth-led activities and employee engagement, and fostering greater youth collaboration and problem solving across global sites. As the BTE model continues to evolve, we are routinely reminded of J&J’s ongoing commitment to bettering the lives of young people around the world, and the privilege NIWL has in sharing that work.

Visit the BTE 30-year timeline!