CIOs create a STEM Advantage, develop program to cultivate IT talent

A group of CIOs couldn’t find the IT talent they needed, so they created a program to encourage and prepare women and underserved communities to pursue STEM careers through paid internships.

CIOs create a STEM Advantage, develop program to cultivate IT talent
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A bunch of CIOs in Los Angeles were unhappy. They’d run into each other at local conferences and have the same conversation — it was harder than ever to find talent, especially with the skill sets to drive digital transformation.

“This is seven years ago,” says Ron Guerrier, CIO and secretary of innovation and technology of the State of Illinois. “We’re sitting there on a couch, complaining that we can’t find local talent, the right talent, diverse talent. Finally, we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s stop complaining. Let’s do something about it.’”

This same conversation is taking place on couches worldwide. IT is critical to success in the digital age, and CEOs and boards want to know how their CIO is winning the talent war and driving digital transformation.

“There has forever been a talent race,” says Marlo Donate, head of enterprise marketing IT for Farmers Insurance. “Especially, I’d say, in California.”

And by taking a novel, proactive approach, this group of IT executives is both making a difference in underserved communities and recruiting remarkable people for key vacancies. They’re partnering with less prominent colleges to find more diverse, often overlooked, candidates, and using tech meetups and other local events to promote their brands and meet IT talent.

It’s a perspective and set of techniques any CIO should emulate.

Showing up different

Finding new sources of diverse talent helps IT do more than fill empty seats; it helps IT evolve into a better organization. Previously, I introduced research highlighting the journey up the IT Maturity Curve. No longer satisfied as solution providers and order-takers, CIOs today are building a new workforce that shows up different. They’re elevating their teams to be strategic partners and trusted advisors (the third level in a four-stage evolution).

Some reach further, leveraging their end-to-end view of the enterprise. These stage-four organizations are looking into the future, using data and insights to revitalize customer experiences and drive new revenue streams. We call them innovative anticipators.

Evolving to that level requires a different mindset, Guerrier says. “It’s all about diversity, and diversity of thought,” he says. “I really value people who can spar constructively with their peers. Having a constructive disruptor on your team is very important.”

The DIY approach

Back to that conference sofa. Call it upping their game or changing the narrative — this group of IT leaders took action. They formed a nonprofit to increase the talent pool in a way that also helped students who didn’t come from traditional white-collar backgrounds.

“Everyone was looking at the big schools — USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount,” says Guerrier, who was then the Los Angeles-based CIO of Toyota Financial Services. “We knew there had to be talented kids there who didn’t have the means to go to one of those big schools.”

Their nonprofit, STEM Advantage, inspires and prepares women and underserved communities to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math through paid internships, mentorship, scholarships, and professional development workshops. In 2012, they started with only a dozen students, and last year had more than 100. The program boasts a 100 percent graduation and employment rate. Often, the students end up working at the very companies where they interned.

“They’re remarkable,” Donate says. “They've been fighting their entire careers, and in many cases their entire lives, to have a platform.”

Every CIO I talked to mentioned working with specific kids, and how they’ve since progressed in their careers. The internships are transformative, Donate says: “In a six-to-eight-week period, you see that so much has changed in the students, in their confidence levels.”

And the internship approach has been very successful as a hiring strategy.

“I’ve hired a number of students who’ve interned with me. And we’ve seen that many of the companies that provide STEM Advantage internships have been able to use the interns as a pipeline for entry-level talent, says Cindy McKenzie, CIO of Deluxe and, like Guerrier and Donate, a STEM Advantage founder and board member. “At the end of day, I’m still CIO, and I wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work for our business.”

“What our program gives these kids is not a handout,” Guerrier adds, “but a hand up.”

For those outside of Los Angeles

STEM Advantage is clearly a great and desperately needed program. Years of outsourcing and underinvestment in STEM education have crushed the feeder systems for early career talent, and we must build them up again. But, I asked, what can a CIO outside Southern California do today?

“First, look around — I bet there’s a program near you,” McKenzie says. “Second, just call a local school. Say, ‘I’m looking to hire five to 10 interns per year, and I want to work directly with you. Can you help us vet students with these skills?’ Literally every school we cold-called said yes. They desperately want their students to get internships.”

Donate says Farmers is using more than college campuses to up-level recruitment. Seeking experienced talent, the company attends job fairs and tech meetups. While Farmers has been recognized as a terrific environment (It’s a Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, for instance), a “90-years-young” insurance organization doesn’t always have cache with young tech workers. Hence the meetups and other events. But interestingly, it wasn’t a top-down HR initiative.

“I was hearing from our engineering talent that they want to talk tech,” she says, so Farmers began collaborating with a local tech group to host an ongoing event. “It's a place where our engineering talent can host the talks and discuss chatbots or other technical topics. We invite people into the incredible innovation space at our Farmers office in Woodland Hills, and they get to know us.”

Guerrier attends and speaks at local events focused around tech generally and STEM diversity. He notes that local colleges are not the only source of young, diverse talent.

“Partner with Girls who Code, Black Girls Code, and similar groups,” he says. “To say you can’t find diverse talent is a fallacy. You have to go out there. And if you can’t find it, help create it. That’s one of the things that STEM Advantage did — it helped us get over the ‘woe is me’ factor.”

An annual celebration

IT leaders in Southern California can take a closer look at STEM Advantage’s success at its April 27, 2019, fundraising event. Held at the California Science Center, under the Space Shuttle Endeavour, it features students currently in the program, graduates who’ll discuss how the program launched their careers, and many leaders from Southern California’s IT community. It’s a chance to learn about the program and meet talented, inspiring kids.

“It’s a great networking event, too, because we’re at every big company around,” McKenzie adds.

And as these leaders can attest, amazing things happen at networking events. So, take this opportunity, or make one of your own, to tackle your talent challenge in a way that creates results that are meaningful — in every sense of the word.

For more on workforce strategy and talent management, check out the Ouellette & Associates blog, and HR2IT,a new community around supporting the talent needs of IT.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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