How We Can Meet the Tech Talent Shortage

Written by Joan Smemoe, CIO, Railinc
The industry is making progress, bringing more women into tech, training the next generation, and showing younger girls that anything is possible, according to Joan Smemoe, CIO of Railinc.

The industry is making progress, bringing more women into tech, training the next generation, and showing younger girls that anything is possible, according to Joan Smemoe, CIO of Railinc.

RAILWAY AGE, NOVEMBER 2020 ISSUE: With technology supporting more of the economy and our daily lives, the need for skilled workers in software development, architecture and other tech-focused fields grows exponentially. It is difficult, however, for most tech companies to find the talent they need.

One approach that can help address the shortage of these skilled workers, while also promoting equality and opportunity, is to create better pathways for women to work in technology.

As a technology company that supports the railroad industry, we have worked hard at Railinc to bring more women into tech and promote those who succeed into leadership roles. Our company is based in the Research Triangle area in North Carolina—a notoriously competitive place for companies to recruit and retain tech talent. But, we’ve been able to meet our talent needs in two ways. 

First, as a tech company that is aligned with a unique industry, we are able to appeal to potential employees with our ability to really get things done. Railroads are the backbone of the U.S. economy. The work our software engineers and developers do at Railinc won’t end up being research that sits on the shelf.

We are tasked with solving big challenges, we move aggressively to develop the solutions, and we put them into production. For tech employees coming from large, bureaucratic companies, or those focused on small scope products or solutions, our goals, approach, and outcomes are different and incredibly attractive.

Second, we are laser-focused on finding the best talent for our open positions and perfecting our search and hiring processes. This may sound like common sense, but it takes commitment to put the right people and processes in place to ensure talent selection is equitable and successful.

“I encourage female senior leaders on my team to mentor their junior female colleagues, and I am active in mentoring women throughout the company.”

In 2019, The Economist reported: “Women hold just 25% of jobs in computing and leave the tech and engineering sectors at twice the rate of men.” At Railinc, we’re proud of the fact that women make up 28% of our workforce and fill 25% of management positions. Two of Railinc’s top IT positions and two of Railinc’s executive team positions are held by women.

These numbers track with the trends the rail industry is seeing overall with female workers and managers. One of the most recent high-profile successes came in September when BNSF named Kathryn Farmer as its President and CEO—making her the first woman to lead a Class I railroad in North America.

When I joined Railinc in 2006, I was a seasoned senior software engineer, but had no background in rail. I immediately immersed myself into railroading. Railinc rewarded my efforts. I rose through the ranks, and I’m now the company’s CIO. 

In my 14 years with Railinc, I’ve been joined by many other talented women, and the entire company is proud of our accomplishments to improve gender diversity among our workforce, including:

• The number of female employees at Railinc has increased by 72% over the past 10 years.

• One in four senior or managerial positions is held by a female employee.

• Railinc has increased its population of women of color working at the company by 150% over the past 10 years.

Not everyone comes to us ready to move into an executive role—and that’s not a bad thing. Employees who are hired at entry level jobs and work their way up are valuable resources. They learn the company from the inside-out and make for more knowledgeable leaders and executives.

That’s why it’s important to have a strong onboarding program that includes internships or apprenticeships, and most important—mentorships. I encourage female senior leaders on my team to mentor their junior female colleagues, and I am active in mentoring women throughout the company. 

More than 20% of all employees begin their Railinc careers in the Customer Support Center (CSC)—where they work with individual customers who have a problem or need. Then, they move on to positions such as product development manager, business analyst, software developer, and solutions engineer.

A few years ago, I met a new CSC employee who had recently graduated with a degree in computer science. She was uncertain of her ability to take on technology work and hesitant to follow that path out of CSC. I worked with her over a period of months, helping to build her self confidence and encouraging her to put her training to use. She ended up being hired out of CSC as an associate software developer and has become a thriving, successful member of our team.

When I mentor younger workers, I tell them the best way to prove themselves is to show their ability to execute, develop good ideas, and demonstrate technical competency. This is especially true for women entering tech, where they have been historically under-represented. But while mentoring is a strong lever for helping women in tech succeed, we need to do more to encourage women to train for and enter the field.

I’ve found that women who chose to go into tech are often strong in logic and math and have a healthy balance of humility and self-confidence. Additionally, I’ve found my female engineers also are very empathetic, good listeners, pay strict attention to detail and are full of creativity. These are really important traits in our field, where we often have heated debates or are brainstorming how to solve complex issues. Having these intelligent, strong women brings in different perspectives and allows us to arrive at the best solutions.

With a shortage of tech workers, why isn’t more being done to encourage and prepare women to join the field?

As employers, we need to start outreach early on at schools and job fairs. Instead of advertising single jobs, illustrate the career path available both at the company and in the industry. Set up paid internships. Have formalized mentoring where veteran employees are matched with new hires. Put images of women working in recruitment and marketing materials to illustrate a commitment to gender diversity.

Senior leaders also should look for possibilities in their professional community. In the local CIO peer groups I belong to I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to support getting more women into tech or to recruit talented women for Railinc.

Recruiting female and other employees is only half the battle—we need to ensure they understand the value they are providing and support them as they work to grow, develop their skills, and build a career.

These approaches will help to bring more tech workers into the talent pool and do a great deal to promote equality in the technology industry, which has traditionally struggled with that achievement. Equally important, however, is what happens at our companies once we hire talented women onto our teams. Creating a culture of diversity and inclusion is important. Supporting employees through mentoring and clearly identified career paths will help them to succeed. 

Research done by LinkedIn shows that tech has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, managers at Facebook said they tracked why people were leaving their company. They found out most left when their job wasn’t enjoyable, their strengths weren’t being used, or they weren’t growing in their careers.

Recruiting female and other employees is only half the battle—we need to ensure they understand the value they are providing and support them as they work to grow, develop their skills, and build a career.

The tech talent shortage is not an insurmountable challenge. It will take commitment from those of us in the industry who have the power to promote and enact change. 

I know we are not resting on our accomplishments to date at Railinc, because there is still so much work to be done. But, I’m confident that we will continue to make progress, bringing more women into tech, training the next generation, and showing younger girls that whether it’s CIO, founder, developer, engineer, or CEO—for them, anything is possible in this industry.

Joan Smemoe is CIO of Railinc, based in Cary, North Carolina, and was a 2019 Railway Age “Women in Rail” honoree

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