They are described as the hidden gems of the workforce: mature, skilled, and highly-motivated STEM professionals who return to their careers after a hiatus of two years or more. Often they have already navigated the complicated life experiences — marriage, career changes, children, and relocations — that still lie ahead of their younger counterparts. As a result, employers view them as stable, energized, and capable.
Ruchi Garg was one of those people, but she didn’t feel like a hidden gem. Six years prior, she had left the workplace to become the primary caretaker for her two young children. Now she felt like many of the 216,000 women across the U.S. with computer science or engineering degrees who left their technical jobs. She wanted to get her career moving again but was worried that her skillset had grown stale in the wake of rapidly advancing technologies and evolving computer engineering practices.
It was during this period of uncertainty that Garg came across Carol Fishman Cohen’s book, “Back On the Career Track.” Cohen is co-founder and CEO of iRelaunch, a company that specializes in helping women and men re-enter the workforce. In partnership with the Society of Women Engineers, iRelaunch created the STEM Re-Entry Task Force in 2015 and established internship programs with Booz Allen Hamilton, Caterpillar, Cummins, General Motors, IBM, Intel, and Johnson Controls.
Jennifer Abman Scott of the Society of Women Engineers says that, upon re-entry, “women often encounter a landscape that demands new technical skillsets and levels of expertise.”
“While they often have management or executive experience, they may lack updated technical skills and struggle with feelings of inadequacy. By investing in training to get re-entry candidates up to speed, firms can attract mature and vetted employees,” Scott says.
The internships caught Garg’s eye, but she knew that to be a viable candidate she’d have to revitalize her skillset. She understood that the best way to get back into the engineering groove was to take a class on a current programing language that employed the latest engineering techniques, but while colleges and universities near her offered computer science courses, they were either too basic or didn’t provide the curriculum she needed.
Then Garg found 6.00.1x (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python), an MITx online course taught by professors John Guttag and Eric Grimson and lecturer Ana Bell.
“I looked for courses at institutions near me but couldn’t find what I needed. Online learning brought resources from around the world to my door, and I was able to find the course I was looking for,” she says. “Without online learning, I’m not sure how I would have closed the gap in my knowledge base.”
After completing the Python course, Garg returned to iRelaunch with an upgraded skillset and soon landed a position in the inaugural cohort of the IBM Tech Re-Entry program. Upon completion of the 12-week paid internship, she was hired as a data analyst at The Weather Company, an IBM subsidiary that runs The Weather Channel and Weather Underground.
The 6.00.1x course was a key step in Garg’s re-entry. It provided the hands-on training she needed to be competitive in the marketplace and helped her regain the confidence she’d lost during the time she was away. But online learning isn’t a one-time encounter reserved for students and job applicants.
“After joining IBM, I was surprised to see that so many people were taking online courses to maintain their skillsets and discover new technologies that they can apply to their work at the company,” she says. “Currently, I’m taking courses in Scala and Spark.”
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, at any given time, there are 2.6 million well-educated mothers of prime working age who are not participating in the labor force. Officials estimate that by 2024, as many as 500,000 engineering positions will be left unfilled for lack of qualified candidates. Recognizing the value of distance learning and its potential to help experienced professionals find their way back to the STEM workforce, iRelaunch and the Society of Women Engineers routinely connect job seekers to online learning programs.
Cohen says companies such as IBM have high regard for online coursework offered by institutions with rigorous demands and high quality standards.
“They know what it takes to complete an MITx course, for example, and they place a lot of value on candidates who are able to do so,” she says.
An estimated 27 percent of women who hold engineering and computer sciences degrees have left their professions, most commonly to care for family. Garg is emblematic of this large population, which has tremendous potential. According to the STEM Re-entry Task Force, bringing technical workers back into the fold could be an effective pressure relief valve for the current talent shortages in engineering and science.
“Online learning can be regarded as a meaningful credential for professionals returning to the workforce after a career break, and a great opportunity for serious updating," Cohen says.