In the late 1980s, Sandrea Mack Behrens was working a few service industry jobs and caring for her toddler when she ran into an old professor. The professor encouraged her to take a test for a workforce development program that was beginning in New Jersey, a test that would ultimately land her as one of 25 people offered training and positions with the state, specializing in COBOL development. Behrens spent the next several years working across the tech industry, until eventually landing a role at Accenture.
Behrens talked about this career trajectory during a Future Works Alliance PHL event this week. She’s been working her way up at Accenture for 15 years, and currently works as a senior business agility manager. Behrens also serves on the board of Philly nonprofit Tech Impact. She called that first workforce program “life changing.” Here’s why:
“If someone would have told me, way back when, when I was sitting there coding, that eventually I would be in the running for an incredible title, an incredible job at our incredible company, I would have probably looked at them sideways,” she said.
When Behrens first started in tech, she didn’t see the representation in the industry to make her believe she had a place it, she said. It’s why she feels workforce development is so important. “First, it gives the opportunity for people to make inroads in meaningful ways and change lives,” she said. Her opportunity with the state of New Jersey allowed her to quit two of her service industry jobs, and it “gave me the opportunity to start building a life,” she said.
Secondly, technology is constantly changing, she said. Without programs to develop new talent, there’s a real threat of the digital divide becoming wider and leaving more and more people behind. A diverse workforce also produces better work, she said. (We’ve heard time and time again why diversity makes good business sense.) “Having a diverse workforce gives people the opportunity to have diversity of thought, leading to better solutions and better outcomes for businesses,” Behrens said. “It’s a win-win.”
As she continues to navigate her carer for years to come, Behrens passed along some advice that’s helped her: As an individual, create your own “board of directors,” those trusted mentors, peers and professionals in your network that will give it to you straight and also help build each other up — because rising tides lift all boats. “For very very long time, I was the only person who looked like me in these places and spaces, but I’m happy to report that it’s getting a little better,” Behrens said.
Watch their full conversation here: