Since taking over as director at the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development in 2014, Trinh Nguyen has transformed the office into an innovative public agency devoted to creating economic self-sufficiency among Boston residents. A former Dorchester resident, Nguyen has dedicated the past 20 years to public service, a pursuit she says requires a good deal of tenacity and a wholehearted commitment to personal advancement.
“If we improve ourselves to better serve, we actually can make a better impact on those we serve,” she said. “It makes me happy when residents trust our city and trust our ability to provide for and serve them.”
The 42-year-old Nguyen was recently honored at Viet-AID’s annual “Telling Our Stories Gala” for her unwavering dedication to workforce development and fair housing among Boston’s most disadvantaged residents. Her drive to help others has taken on many forms, with roles at the city of Boston’s Office of New Bostonians, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, and the Boston Housing Authority. But her dedication to public service was inspired by her personal struggles with the barriers that often prevent low-income citizens from gaining full access to economic stability.
Born in Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War, Nguyen and her family escaped their homeland in 1977 with nothing but a wooden boat set adrift in the South China Sea. “It wasn’t a motor boat,” she said. “There wasn’t a destination we were heading towards. The captain just left the shores hoping someone would detect us and pick us up.”
The family was among those considered “boat people,” a term used by Vietnamese-Americans for those who fled the country by sea.
Fortunately, Nguyen’s family was picked up five days into their trip by a volunteer rescue organization and taken to Kyoto, Japan, where they spent the next few years in a refugee camp.
The family eventually moved to the United States and settled in Worcester in the late 1980s, a community where Nguyen said she developed a lifelong commitment to learning. She received her undergraduate degree from Clark University in 1994, two master’s degrees, one from Ohio University and another from UMass Boston, and, most recently, an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Business.
For Nguyen, education and a willingness to learn about the changing needs of her community has been pivotal to her development as a better public servant, and is something she hopes to pass along to others through her work for the city. “I was lucky to aspire to education and a career, but equity isn’t about luck, it’s about equal opportunity. We need to make that available to all who need it,” she said.
Through the Office of Workforce Development (formerly known as the Office of Jobs and Community Service), Nguyen and her team help low-income Boston residents find job training and education programs and gain access to quality employment opportunities. The agency offers a number of initiatives to promote meaningful employment, including Youth Options Unlimited, which helps court-involved youths participate in workforce development programs, and the Neighborhood Jobs Trust, a program that works to prevent job loss among low-income residents.
According to Nguyen, this is an important change in the agency’s mission: rather than simply helping residents find jobs, the agency, under her direction, has shifted its focus to creating lasting, sustainable career paths. “We’re committed to changing lives, not transactional job placement,” she said.
Providing good customer service is essential to her work, said Nguyen. How she engages clients and designs workforce development programming has to be “stellar,” she added.
Nguyen encourages her team members to approach each program as if they were designing it for their own family members, and to develop a culture that the agency isn’t offering a handout, but a pathway to self-sufficiency. For Nguyen, seeing clients take advantage of these offerings is the most rewarding part of her work.
“I’m happy when people are given the opportunity to make the right decisions in their lives. And given the opportunity, most if not all of the choices they make are the right ones.”