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From city neighborhoods to a career in banking

By: Sam Wood on Sep 29, 2023

 Citizens Bank employees Johnny Perez, left, assistant vice president and scrum master, and Stephanie Cuevas, social media community manager, both came up through Year Up Inc.’s career development program. 

Johnny Perez never imagined that he’d work for a bank.

Now he’s an assistant vice president at Citizens Financial Group Inc. in Providence.

Eight years ago, Perez was juggling multiple part-time jobs.

“And all of them started with a ‘U,’ ” Perez quipped. “I was a customer service rep at U-Haul, a package handler at UPS, and a driver for Uber.”

Everything changed when he joined Year Up Inc.

A career development program with a campus in Providence, Year Up has elevated hundreds of young adults without college degrees. Through a yearlong program that includes an internship, intense one-on-one mentoring, and soft and hard skills training, Year Up has put them on a fast track to the middle class.

Fortune 500 corporations fund the program. They benefit, too.

Since 2005, Year Up has provided an uninterrupted pipeline of diverse and qualified workers for national enterprises large and small.

In Rhode Island, those companies not only include Citizens. Many of the Ocean State’s largest employers recruit directly from the Year Up program: among them Amica Mutual Insurance Co.CVS Health Corp.Fidelity Investments Inc.Lifespan Corp. and The Washington Trust Co.

Perez joined Year Up in 2015.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “Through the program I could get school credit, real work experience and paid a decent stipend.”

Year Up operates on 25 campuses nationwide. In Providence, the curriculum focuses on customer service, business operations and information technology. Perez already had some computer skills. He was surprised when the program assigned him to the customer service track.

“I always had a big interest in IT. I thought that’s where the money was, and the excellent jobs would be,” Perez said. “But business operations turned out to be the best fit. There were more hybrid opportunities available to me.

The first half of his training focused on soft skills: making a solid first impression, keeping a schedule, developing a reputation for responsibility, networking, dressing for success and expressing confidence through a firm handshake.

The next six months, he was a project analyst at Citizens. “It wasn’t something I had on my radar. But coming in, I got the feel and the energy of the people, the sense of collaboration. I felt at home,” he said.

He learned the fundamentals of the financial industry from the ground up. “It’s not just numbers,” he said. “It’s so much more than that. It’s IT, support and operations, too.”

Perez graduated from the program in 2016. Citizens immediately offered him a job. He quickly rose to manage an array of projects.

In July 2021, Citizens named Perez an assistant vice president. As one of his duties, he onboards all of the bank’s Year Up interns. Unofficially, he calls himself an evangelist for the program. “I preach Year Up in my sleep,” he said.

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