Closing the Gap: Alternative Pathways to Engineering Careers

The gap between industries’ demand for engineers and the number of professionals available is persistent. Could alternative educational approaches to training offer new pathways to engineering careers? Today, a range of high-tech boot camps, online courses, and company-led training programs are options to the traditional university degree.

By Rishelle Wimmer, SWE Editorial Board, and Pramita Mitra, Ph.D., SWE Editorial Board

While a computer science degree covers a wide range of theoretical knowledge and takes four years to complete, the tech boot camp teaches foundational IT skills and provides a streamlined, affordable program that is practical and project oriented. The boot camp’s pace is rigorous, but within three to six months, students who are determined to work in coding, web design, network administration, cybersecurity, or data analytics can gain new skills and jump-start their tech careers. And while the boot camp may not provide the depth of a traditional computer science undergraduate program, it might just lower the threshold to a career in engineering — especially for those who are historically underrepresented.

Credit: sorbetto

The following perspectives highlight alternative pathways to careers in engineering.

After completing her undergraduate degree in economics and working in a bank, Emese Kovacs decided to expand her horizons and moved from Romania to Germany. Faced with the challenge of finding a job in a new country, she considered starting a new career. A network engineer friend advised her to consider the field.

“When I told her that I didn’t have a degree in computer science, she said, ‘Don’t let that stop you.’ So, I signed up for a free first-level certification course for the IT service desk and started studying on my own. This course gave me my first contact with the insides of a computer. As I began my job search, I was not aware of how few women engineers there are in Germany. After six months of applying without a positive response, things finally changed. My current employer was looking for trainees, people with ambition and curiosity, and there was no experience or specific background education required. This was my chance. After a series of interviews, I was selected for the three-month training program in systems engineering. I was given a permanent contract, contingent on passing the certification exam. A great advantage was that the company covered the costs of my training. After completing the training, I joined a network and security team at a leading aerospace manufacturer and continued to learn on the job, profiting from the senior engineers’ expertise. Even though I’ve changed careers, my management experience is still relevant for my current position. At this time, I’ve no plans to further my formal education; I have found a job that suits me well.”

With an undergraduate degree in political science, Spencer White, an African American software analyst with Ford Motor Co., joined Teach For America. It was an important chance to give back and be a role model for urban Black youth at a Detroit school.

“While teaching math, I stumbled into coding. That was my aha moment. I thought, ‘Where has this been all my life?’ I signed up for a three-month coding boot camp and, after completion, landed a job in software development. The boot camp was more than just coding and creating a project portfolio; it also offered support for the job search and interview process. Someone took a chance and believed in my ability. I’m thankful; having a mentor is encouraging and reinforces the feeling that you belong, diminishing any impostor syndrome. Even though lack of a technical degree was not an obstacle, I wondered if I knew enough. So, to improve my software developing skills and learn about new technologies, I took online courses at Coursera, which were financially supported by my employer’s professional development program.

How I approach my work is influenced by my political science background. I have a heightened awareness of the social implications of technology. This makes it even more exciting to engage with technological developments because I see how they can be used to make the world a better place. Recently, I’ve decided to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.

Would I have chosen engineering as an undergraduate? I often ask myself that question and think, ‘Why hadn‘t I known about this sooner?’”

Pramita Mitra, Ph.D., supervisor, IoT and blockchain applications, Ford Motor Co., is faced with the challenge of finding competent specialists in emerging technologies.

“Alternative educational pathways are becoming more common in the emerging technology space, such as blockchain. For example, there are not many colleges and universities which offer a blockchain course at the graduate level, and even fewer at the undergraduate level. Many current experts in the field are self-taught using books, open-source software (OSS), massive open online courses (MOOC), etc.

When we were trying to fill a software engineer position in my team a couple of years ago, it became clear that we might be adversely affecting our pool of candidates if we focused solely on those with traditional CS and EE backgrounds. We changed the job posting so that the degree requirement was inclusive of candidates with nontraditional backgrounds, such as coding boot camp experiences and online professional certification programs.

Additionally, we set the interview questions around the fundamental concepts of blockchain as a distributed ledger technology, as well as the programming languages used by many popular blockchain platforms, instead of basing the questions on particular blockchain platforms. Prior experience with blockchain platforms were considered only as a preferred qualification — it was not expected. We worked closely with our HR and talent acquisition organization to implement these custom changes, which allowed us to get around the challenges of hiring in a new technology space.

We understand that many women and minority professionals do not pursue traditional STEM education because of numerous sociocultural reasons, and these alternative pathways are important vessels for them to get into STEM careers, and for companies to build a diverse workforce in the rapidly changing technical space.”

Rishelle Wimmer (she, her, hers) is a senior lecturer in the information technology and systems management department of the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria. She studied operation research and system analysis at Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in educational sciences from the University of Salzburg. She serves on the SWE editorial board and the Research Advisory Council and has been the faculty advisor for the Salzburg SWE affiliate since FY17.

Pramita Mitra, Ph.D. (she, her, hers), is a supervisor of exterior, Internet of Things and blockchain applications, research and advanced engineering, at Ford Motor Co. Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan. A professional member of SWE since 2015, Dr. Mitra currently serves on the WE Local advisory board and the editorial board. In 2020, she received the WE Local New ELiTE (Emerging Leader in Technology and Engineering) Award and a total of 13 Patent Recognition Awards in 2020 and 2021. Dr. Mitra also received the Women of Color STEM Technology Rising Star Award in 2021.