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The Future of Work

How Paid Re-Entry Programs Can Get More Women In Tech

Major companies are getting access to untapped talent by offering paid internships to those who have taken career breaks.

[Photo: Darryl Estrine/Getty Images]

Seven global engineering and tech companies (IBM, Intel, General Motors, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cummins, Caterpillar, and Johnson Controls) are piloting re-entry, paid internship programs for people who have taken career breaks of two years or longer. These organizations plan to offer some of these interns permanent positions when the 12-week program ends.

The re-entry program was originated by iRelaunch, which also works with the financial services industry on a similar paid re-entry program that began in 2014 and has resulted in returning professionals being hired for full-time positions at Goldman Sachs, MetLife, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Credit Suisse. The financial services program was based on a similar program developed by Goldman Sachs in 2008.

This is the perfect vehicle for employers to engage with people returning from a career break, says iRelaunch CEO Carol Fishman Cohen, because it allows the employer to evaluate the returning professional based on an actual work sample rather than a series of interviews. It also alleviates some of the typical concerns employers have about professionals returning to work after a multi-year career break, including apprehension that the returning employee might be technologically obsolete, might not know exactly what they want to do, and might have a hard time ramping up.

Alka Sharma participated in Credit Suisse’s re-entry program, "Real Returns," last year. During her five-year career break she had started a small business and earned a second master's degree. "I always wanted to return but I didn’t know what form that would take," says Sharma, vice president, market risk manager for U.S. prime services at Credit Suisse. Real Returns helped her transition back into banking by offering her the support of a mentor and providing her with a unique opportunity to network within the company.

Judy Galvin Casey, a vice president at Morgan Stanley and 2015 participant in the company’s Return to Work program, says the experience provided the strong footing she needed to restart her professional career. "From the outset," she says, "you’re encouraged to network and build partnerships across the organization that will ensure your success."

Re-entry Programs For STEM Jobs

Following the success of the financial services re-entry programs, Cohen approached the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) about creating a similar program for engineer and technology companies. SWE and iRelaunch started the STEM Re-entry Task Force and recruited seven companies to participate in a pilot program this year. According to reports by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Nadya Fouad at the University of Wisconsin:

  • 2.5 million women have STEM degrees
  • 32% have engineering and computer sciences degrees
  • 27% of those women have left engineering jobs
  • 25% have left to spend more time with their families

Often women leave the workplace because of lack of flexibility, says Karen Horting, SWE executive director, and employers are starting to recognize that they need to be creative to retain experienced talent. Women make up only 12% of the engineering workforce, she says, and this program is a good way to increase the number of women in the engineering pipeline.

The need to find more talent is why General Motors agreed to participate, says Kristen Siemen, executive director of global thermal/HVAC engineering. Siemen heard Cohen’s presentation about iRelaunch and the financial services re-entry programs at a SWE meeting, and immediately committed GM to participate. "It’s tough to find engineers these days," Siemen says. "This is an excellent opportunity to attract individuals to GM who might not have thought of coming back."

Getting Women Back Into Tech

For women with a 10-year or longer career break, the workplace is probably very different, Horting says. While the basic rules of physics and engineering are still the same, says Siemen, the tools used to do the job are different. A re-entry program gives returning professionals an opportunity to be coached and gain access to the latest tools and technology.

GM’s 12-week re-entry program begins on April 1 with 10 interns (all women) who have had career breaks ranging from 4 years to 21 years. Participants will receive mentoring and coaching and will be exposed to different parts of the company, says Silva Karlsson, SWE liaison for GM and lead advanced thermal engineer in Airflow. "Our hope," she says, "is to hire them all."

IBM is also participating in the program to attract more talent to the company. "Some of the best talent has taken a career break and isn’t sure how to get back in," says Jennifer Howland, executive of the IBM Pathways Program for Experienced Technical Women.

IBM’s program begins April 4. The company hasn’t extended offers to selected participants yet, but it’s hoping to hire six interns, Howland says. Selected participants are all women with career breaks ranging from five to eight years.

"Participants will have an opportunity to update their skills in a work environment that may have significantly changed since their last work experience," Howland says. "They will have access to the latest tools and technology, and they’ll work along side a team of scientists, engineers, and business professionals."

Although the program is open to men, few men qualify because they haven’t had a two-year or longer career break. Cohen says 93% of the participants in the financial services industry program have historically been women because candidates "participate in a number that reflects supply."

A panel of interns who have transitioned to full-time positions at these seven engineering and tech companies will discuss their experience with the re-entry program and how it impacted their return to work at SWE’s annual conference from October 27 to 29 in Philadelphia.

Correction: An earlier version of the article attributed the statistics about women in engineering to SWE and iRelaunch, the correct source is the U.S. Department of Commerce and Nadya Fouad at the University of Wisconsin.

Related: Sallie Krawcheck On The Benefits Of Investing In Women