By David Jen

In 2002, Tracey Moraczewski, Ph.D., left her job as a project engineer to attend graduate school and start a family. When she decided to return to the field in 2021, she faced challenges in returning to the workforce because of her hiatus.

“It’s really hard when you have a gap on your resume to get companies to take a look at you or take you seriously,” says Moraczewski in press material from CDM Smith, the global engineering and construction firm based in Boston for which she now works.

Moraczewski is not alone. Of the roughly 800,000 women with engineering or computer science degrees in the United States, about 27% have left their technical fields, according to a 2017 white paper from the Society of Women Engineers.

The white paper went on to estimate anywhere between 54,000 and 216,000 women with technical degrees are on career breaks at any given time in the country.

A national STEM shortage

At the same time, a shortage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workers is hampering industries reliant on those skills.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has identified “a significant need to develop adequate talent in (STEM) fields to ensure economic strength, security, global competitiveness, and environmental health,” pointing to 34% growth in jobs requiring STEM expertise in the past decade.

A 2021 report from Deloitte highlighted a 79% increase in STEM jobs since 1990 and projected that “3.5 million (STEM) jobs will need to be filled by 2025.”

To tap the talent pool of those on career breaks, CDM Smith began offering in 2019 a Reboot Re-Entry Program designed to help skilled STEM workers — regardless of gender — looking to get back to their careers after breaks of two years or longer.

“(The program) is an opportunity for folks who have left their STEM career for whatever reason,” says Julie Lucas, who manages talent acquisition programs at CDM Smith. “We've had folks who've left to start families, who went into the military, were taking care of sick loved ones, (or) just ended up on a different path. It doesn't really matter why you left your career, but the point is that you're looking to get back in.”

Applicants to the program are screened the same way any other candidate would be, with the caveat that career gaps are ignored. If accepted, program participants then work for CDM Smith in a temporary capacity for 16 weeks and are paid based on their education and experience.

In addition to the temporary position, the program assigns dedicated mentors and offers professional development opportunities and a biweekly lunch with participants’ Reboot Re-Entry cohort to discuss experiences and learn more about the organization.

“The hope is, at the end of the 16 weeks, that the manager feels confident enough that they can absolutely do this job and convert them to a full-time regular staff member and that the candidate will accept,” says Lucas.

To date, the program boasts a 100% conversion rate for the candidates receiving offers.

Reboot Re-Entry began as a brainstorm of how to increase the pipeline of applicants for CDM Smith’s STEM positions, says Lucas. While the firm already had rough plans to reach out to its alumni, a fortuitous opportunity arrived in the form of an offer from SWE and iRelaunch, a reentry consulting, training, and events company, which has trademarked “normalizing career breaks.”

SWE and iRelaunch formed the STEM Re-entry Task Force in 2015 with the goal of helping organizations develop cost-effective reentry programs. After reaching out to CDM Smith, a partnership with the task force — and the Reboot Re-Entry Program — was formed with its first cohort completing the program in 2019.

What if I’m not ready to return?

For those currently on breaks, Lucas recommends keeping up with certain certifications or professional development if possible.

“Even if folks just take a simple class once a year, just to keep up with trends and things going on, (it) can be super helpful,” Lucas says.

But even without that form of career maintenance, those returning to the workforce have little to worry about.

“A lot of (participants) have found it’s like riding a bike,” continues Lucas. “They'll pick things up really quickly, or things will just come back to them, which is excellent. (For) the ones who have been gone 10 to 15 to 20 years, a lot of the knowledge is still the same.”

Moraczewski completed Reboot Re-Entry to land her current role as an environmental engineer.

“Programs like Reboot are really important for getting people the chance to get back to work and see that they can do it and (that) they can do a great job,” says Moraczewski. “Everyone that needs it should do the Reboot program.”

The program, which celebrated its five-year anniversary with its 2023 cohort, is now piloting two cohorts per year as well as a Reboot Re-Entry Program specifically for those who have taken career breaks because of military service.

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.