Ep 41: Dr. Denise Mahoney: Building the Future Diverse Workforce

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to chat with Dr. Denise Mahoney, the Pre-Apprentice Liaison for the Kent County Technical Career Center, situated in the Kent County, Mi., Intermediate School District. Her current work is funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant obtained by Grand Rapids Community College in partnership with Macomb Community College to increase the number of technology-oriented apprentices in West Michigan. Denise is focused on identifying and fostering technical opportunities and educational paths for 11 th and 12 th graders, poising them for successful life missions.

“Companies should keep their eyes open to the apprenticeship model,” Denise said. “It is just another way to get qualified employees into the workforce.” Our discussion with her ranged from college affordability to the paucity of jobs available to traditional college graduates to mentorship to the usefulness of practical, employer-driven apprenticeships, and everything in between!

Denise found programming early in her academic life, since Fortran and Cobol were part of her initial undergraduate curriculum at the University of South Dakota. Originally aimed at a business career, Denise worked for a financial company serving the Kodak Corporation, but was quickly drawn into another love: teaching. So, moving to

Michigan, she went back to Western Michigan University to get her teacher’s certificate in business subjects, with an additional certification in occupational education for grades 7 through 12. She then moved over to Michigan State University for her Master’s in Education Leadership. She primarily taught business courses including Microsoft applications, and then migrated into teaching IT courses. Denise ultimately obtained her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at New Mexico State University, and her dissertation concentrated on issues of gender diversity in technology. She described her personal evolution as “not super-exciting but fairly typical of people who moved into IT from other areas.”

Denise truly enjoys working at a high school career tech center that has served over 2300 students, to date. “Our students come to us, and they learn core content (like math and English) through their technical classes. And then we are passionate about teaching them ‘employability skills’ like teamwork, problem-solving, resume-writing -- anything to do with getting a job. So, we are heavily into whatever the next step is for students, whether they are going to college, going to a tech school, or going out into the workforce.”

70% of Denise’s students are placed as apprentices in information technology roles, while the other 30% are situated in manufacturing environments and/or mechatronics. The benefits for her students include the ability to “earn while they learn;” the opportunity to test their fitness for a specific technical career; the chance to test a company’s culture; the option to attain a recognized credential; and the ability to gain a career mentor, with “real life” experience. The companies who participate in the program increase access to a talented, expanded workforce and the chance to “try before they buy” in terms of potential job candidates. Denise is overjoyed that the companies involved in the program are routinely surprised at how prepared her student apprentices are. “Our students are well-positioned to do great things,” she enthusiastically stated. As Denise sees it, it is a “Win/Win” solution for both sides.

Leading the program has also increased Denise’s knowledge of the “real world” economic needs of major employers particularly in terms of technology skills necessary today, and in the future. Denise offered key advice for students.

“Learn everything you can,” she exclaimed. “We are training you for jobs that don’t even exist,” today. For her doctorate, Denise gathered data, in a phenomenological approach, about women in technology fields, and the factors that influence them to choose technology careers. She found five key themes. Per her dissertation on women in technology:

  • Were influenced by others including parents, teachers, friends, boyfriends etc.;
  • Had a supportive network, comprised of people who encouraged them;
  • Mentored others, and were automatically turning around to give back to their profession(s);
  • Had technological aptitudes, despite “myths” and preconceptions that women are not as technically proficient as men; and
  • Had well-developed communication skills, that helped them succeed.

She sees the female technologist’s success paragon as collaborative and creative. Roles rewarding those traits are what women in her study needed, and she believes that is what the field should offer them. Many of the employers with whom Denise works tell her that what they want in employees are not just the technical skills but the “soft skills”: teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, and the predilection to help and collaborate with others.

Denise stressed that “IT is a great career for women.” It offers flexibility, the ability to be “hands-on” if that is what you desire, and strong opportunities for leadership. “You just have to figure out where your niche is,” Denise said.

Please feel free to contact Dr. Denise Mahoney at: denisemahoney@kentisd.org.

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