GM seeks women engineers who have taken career break
Clarification: General Motors said Friday the experienced internship program is open to men and women. The story has been updated.
General Motors Co. is giving women engineers who have taken at least two years off from their jobs a second shot at their career.
The automaker is part of the Society of Women Engineers and career firm iRelaunch’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Re-Entry Task Force. It’s a group of seven companies offering technical internship programs to women who have been out of the workplace for two years or more. Other companies participating are Cummins Inc., Intel Corp., Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., Caterpillar Inc., Johnson Controls and IBM Corp.
GM launched its 12-week paid internship in April with 10 women. A second expanded internship program for women in information technology, manufacturing and vehicle engineering and global propulsion systems is set at GM for the fall. GM said Friday the program is open to men as well.
“There’s a huge pool of talent out there that we didn’t have access to, or weren’t reaching,” said Kristen Siemen, GM’s executive sponsor for the Society of Women Engineers and executive director of global thermal engineering.
The Detroit automaker, which had 400 applicants for its pilot, plans to offer each participant a full-time job as their internships end next week. The interns range from being off for three years to as long as 24 years, and many took time off to raise children, Siemen said.
Susan Gray and Wendy M. Kwiecinski, who each have been away from the engineering field for two decades, were among the 10 women in GM’s program.
Kwiecinski, 49, of Leonard holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. She worked at GM in the 1980s and 1990s before deciding to stay home and homeschool her three children. Kwiecinski said she applied for employment at GM a year or two ago, but never heard back. But when the internship program was announced at GM, someone submitted her name and GM human resources reached out to her. It was all the nudge she needed to apply.
“I thought I was giving up my career as an engineer, so when GM welcomed us back, we’re like ‘wow,’ like we were given it back,” she said. “I had thought my skills would be too outdated.”
Siemen said the career re-entry internship program is new for GM and for the STEM field. Financial and legal sector firms in the U.S. have conducted similar internship programs for the past few years with iRelaunch, Siemen said.
“There is this belief that technology is so far advanced in the time they’ve been off, whether it’s a few years, five, 10, 20-plus, that things move so quickly there’s no way they could come back in and be valuable to the company, whether they worked here before or somewhere else in the industry,” she said.
“In reality, the tools may have changed, our acronyms may have changed, but physics is still physics. And these are highly educated people who have proven themselves and had that technical training that is so hard for us to find.”
About 20 percent of GM’s engineers are female, a bit higher than the 18.6 percent graduating with engineering degrees and 12 percent of the workforce, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
The task force program so far has reached about 100 women, said Karen Horting, CEO of the Society of Women Engineers. Many of the seven companies have had on average 400 to 500 applicants for their pilots, she said. IBM and GM have committed to expanding their programs and another four to five companies, including Schneider Electric, have agreed to launch programs later this year, Horting said. GM is the only automaker participating so far.
As baby boomers retire, employers increasingly are looking for engineers, and a great way to fill the gap is with women who took a break and want to return, Horting said.
“There is a shortage of engineering talent,” Horting said. “To be able to tap into this pool who you already know can do the job because they’ve done it, they just need a little refresh, I think is a huge win for employers.”
Gray, 48, of Clarkson also holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked for GM until late 1995, just before her third daughter was born. Gray stayed home with her daughters, now in college.
She was starting to look for a job when she learned about GM’s internship program and thought it was a perfect fit.
“I knew I wanted to be challenged,” Gray said. “I knew I still had a lot left to contribute.”
One of her biggest challenges coming back after a 20-year break was learning the jargon — Gray said it was overwhelming for the first few weeks. She previously worked on traction control and anti-lock brakes and was placed as a design release engineer doing brake electronics in her internship. She also was shocked by how much brakes had changed in two decades, given new electronic and autonomous technology and cyber-security factors.
At GM, participants were placed in actual jobs the company needs to fill. Applicants were matched based on background and skills. The women were assigned peer mentors, including women who also took a career break — something that helped calm the nerves of both Kwiecinski and Gray and helped ease their transition back into the workplace.
The interns also received cultural training on millennials, GM and its history, its vehicle development process, acronyms and jargon, and training specific to their job.
Earlier this week, the interns met with GM Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra, which Gray called “outstanding,” as Barra is supportive of a work-life integration and balance.
Kwiecinski, assigned as a design release engineer for overhead systems in crossover vehicles during the internship, has found because of her prior experience, she’s been able to add value to conversations and work the team is doing. “We’re not looked at like just a summer intern,” she said.
Siemen said she was most surprised to hear from the some of the 10 participants that they didn’t feel they had a chance to work again in engineering.
“We had heard that, but to hear it from them and to hear that they just never thought that they would be wanted in the industry again was disappointing,” she said. “I’m very proud that GM is doing this and that we’re giving them that opportunity and showing them how valuable they are to us.”
Details about the next phase of the Take2 program, with internships in the Detroit area and Austin, Texas, beginning in mid-September are available at careers.gm.com/working-with-us/experienced-internships.html.