In January 2020, Kelly Gilbert felt as if her life was at a standstill.
The new mom was suffering from postpartum depression. She had just resigned from her security job of seven years, unable to take the stress. To make extra money, she began driving for ride-sharing companies, but she had to take her infant daughter along. As she struggled to make ends meet, she faced eviction from her home.
“I was overwhelmed. I knew I couldn’t give up, but I knew I didn’t have the energy to keep putting on a brave face,” said Gilbert, 32. “I didn’t have the fight in me.”
Then a friend told Gilbert about a new program from Atlanta-based nonprofit Women in Technology (WIT) that could help her launch a career in information technology. The application was due in four days, so Gilbert called her contacts with an urgent request for recommendations and submitted the application in time.
During the interview, she was sure the panel would not take her seriously.
“How will you do this when you just walked away from your job?” one panel member asked.
“I am going to show my daughter that she can do whatever she wants to do,” Gilbert replied, crying.
A few days later, while she was driving for Uber, Gilbert got the call. She had been offered a spot in the program. “I felt like I had hope,” Gilbert said. “I said, ‘This is your light.’”
In a matter of weeks, the outbreak of a global pandemic would result in unprecedented numbers of women exiting the workforce, giving way to the lowest level of female participation in the workforce in more than three decades. Men have recouped all of their labor force losses since February 2020, but there are still nearly 1.1 million fewer women in the labor force, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly jobs report.
Thirty years ago, a group of women launched Women in Technology because they didn’t see other women in leadership roles. At the time, they were mostly concerned with networking, said WIT board president Patti Dismukes.
As they thought about ways to get more women in the pipeline, they formed programs for girls in middle school and high school with a career interest in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Eventually, they would expand to college, but two years ago, they realized that to build on their mission, they would need to rethink how women were entering the field.
Job growth in STEM fields has increased 79% since 1990 while overall employment has grown 34%, based on data from Pew Research. In 2022, women are expected to hold 25% of technical roles at large tech companies despite representing 32.9% of the overall workforce, according to Deloitte Insights. Women seem to be losing out in the world of tech.
“Everyone is fishing out of the same pond, and colleges can’t educate and graduate people fast enough in IT,” Dismukes said. “We have to look differently at how we provide talent.”
In partnership with Emory University, WIT launched a program geared toward getting Georgia’s more than 300,000 single mothers out of low-paying jobs and into tech. Gilbert was among the first 20 mothers to graduate from the program.
Gilbert’s car had been repossessed because she could no longer afford to make the payments, but she was motivated. Each Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Gilbert would take Uber to Sheltering Arms where caregivers would look after her daughter while she attended class virtually. WIT covered the cost of Uber and daycare. The organization also provided laptops and internet access for all attendees and distributed food vouchers to make sure the women would have a meal.
Sometimes the course was overwhelming, said Gilbert, who had previously been interested in IT but had little formal experience. The teachers and her classmates all collaborated to make sure she understood the concepts they learned. Each week she completed several assignments for homework, and if she was unable to complete labs during class on Saturday, she had to be sure they were turned in by Sunday evening.
A week after completing the 12-week course, she had interviews with a half-dozen companies.
Dismukes said her own entry into IT was a fluke but she was good at problem-solving. At WIT, she knew she could help change lives. The program for single mothers was so successful — 100% of the 40 women who have graduated have been placed in jobs — that they launched a new program that follows a similar format but has a broader reach. The Career Connexions program is virtual and is targeted toward women nationwide who are changing careers, re-entering the workforce, never earned a college degree or want to boost their incomes and leave low-wage jobs.
It starts with a seven-week introductory course on IT basics before moving to 12 weeks of training in cybersecurity or data analytics. Women accepted into the program after a two-step interview process pay $500 for tuition. They must maintain grades of 80% or higher, attend all classes and agree to accept a job. Partner companies pay a $15,000 placement fee which covers additional costs of training. The application deadline for the first class is April 9.
“We are bringing non-traditional candidates and if you don’t start thinking about non- traditional candidates you will be left behind,” Dismukes said. “Finding a job is the hardest thing to do. We want women to understand it is not just getting a certification, it is the guarantee that we are going to connect you with the right companies to get the jobs.”
When Gilbert was paired with Equifax, she called it “divine intervention.” The job aligns with her skill set and her goals, she said, and in 12 weeks she went from barely scraping by to getting a 400% salary increase.
“Sometimes I am in disbelief,” she said. “You don’t think you deserve these blessings but when you get them, you realize you are worthy.”
Her daughter turns 3 next month and Gilbert, who works remotely, has been able to move into her own home and replace her car.
She is moving forward with the firm belief that even when setbacks seem to hold you down, you can find the light that keeps you going.
This story was originally published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Nedra Rhone is the lifestyle columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.