While news of the tech talent shortage continues to hit headlines, companies are letting a major source of skills languish: Women with STEM degrees who left the field. But Karen Panetta, an IEEE fellow, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and associate dean for graduate education at Tufts University, found a way to get this population back into the workforce: Mentoring college students on their capstone projects, while updating their own tech and job seeking skills at the same time.
Women tend to leave jobs in the tech industry more than their peers in other fields, studies show. About 50% of women in STEM fields—primarily computing and engineering—left their jobs after 12 years for other roles or time out of the workforce, compared to only 20% of women in other professions, according to a 2013 study. Women in STEM also were more likely to leave their jobs in the first few years of their career than women in non-STEM jobs.
Women exit these lucrative positions for a number of reasons, Panetta said, including caring for children, or, more often, because of hostile company culture. “They find the environment is not welcoming for women, and decide that if they can afford to, they will find another career more conducive to their lifestyle and needs, that they don’t dread going to every day,” Panetta said.
Meanwhile, all engineering and computer science majors at US higher education institutions must complete a capstone design project, as required by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The project is meant to get students to use problem solving to take on a large, interdisciplinary challenge to apply their skills to a real world problem, Panetta said.
At Tufts, students are assigned faculty advisors to oversee their projects. However, Panetta saw a huge bottleneck, as the number of projects far outweighed the number of available advisors. “I saw all of these displaced people in the industry, and thought, ‘Why aren’t we utilizing them?'” Panetta said. “They have been out there, worked at companies, so we brought them in and took a load off of the faculty. At the same time, they learned new skills, and we gave them access to hardware and software.”
Mentors work with students in person or via video chat. They also can come to campus and take hardware and software home with them. “It’s very flexible, and fits well into their lifestyle,” Panetta said.
When mentors come in, even if they have not worked in the industry in years, students still immediately look up to them, Panetta said. “They see you as somebody who already has a degree, and who is already an engineer, who has the experience to help them,” she said. “Students relish the attention and advice this outside person gives them, versus a faculty member.”
Panetta also connects the mentors with IEEE resources and trainings, to help them further brush up on their tech skills. They also have access to the curriculum given to the students, as well as the tech tools the students are using.
After the mentors gain more confidence in their tech skills, Panetta and IEEE connect them with others in the industry to help with resume building, interviewing, and negotiating—which is especially important for people who have been out of the industry for some time, Panetta said, as employers may try to use that gap to lower their salaries.
In the past 15 years, about 65 women have gone through Panetta’s mentoring and job training process, she said. Every one of them received a job offer within six months, at companies including Intel and MITRE.
“You’ve got this huge population of talented women with bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” Panetta said. “We keep hearing about these shortages—they’re out there. You just need to welcome them in.”
People who are interested in getting back into tech can contact Panetta. She also advises getting in touch with the engineering or computer science department at your alma mater or a local university to ask about becoming a capstone design project mentor.
“It takes a lot of courage for someone who’s been out of the industry—the confidence factor is huge,” Panetta said. “But those math and science skills don’t go away. It’s a matter of being ready to harness your skills again, and apply them.”
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