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Episode 180: Relaunching in Engineering After 22 & 19 Year Career Breaks - Gabriella Bean & Sue Spillane

Episode Description

Gabriella Bean and Sue Spillane relaunched their engineering careers in Fall 2017 as part of the inaugural cohort of iReturn, Northrop Grumman’s return-to-work program, after career breaks of 22 years and 19 years respectively. Northrop Grumman launched iReturn as a member of the STEM Reentry Task Force, the groundbreaking multi-company return to work collaborative run by the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch. The iReturn program has now expanded to five cities. Gabriella is principal engineer, operations program manager and Sue is a manufacturing engineering manager at Northrop Grumman. We catch up with them about their return to work, whether they feel like they never left and their reflections on when they first relaunched through iReturn.

Links to Episode Content

Northrop Grumman Returnship Program

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:00:00] Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. Today we welcome Gabriella Bean and Sue Spillane who both relaunched in engineering roles at Northrop Grumman in fall 2017, as part of the inaugural cohort of iReturn, Northbrook Grumman's return to work program. Northrop Grumman launched iReturn as a member of the STEM Reentry Task Force, the groundbreaking multi-company return-to-work collaborative run by The Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch.The program has now expanded to five campuses.

Gabriella and Sue both took very long career breaks, 22 years for Gabriella and 19 years for Sue, and they are both in technical roles. Gabriella is Principal Engineer Operations Program Manager for a program which has to do with protection from guided missile attacks. Sue is a Manufacturing Engineering Manager in the Navigation Targeting and Survivability Division of Northrop Grumman.

We catch up with them over three years later to hear about how things are going now that they've been back in the workforce for an extended period, whether they feel like they never left and their reflections on when they first relaunched through iReturn.

Gabriella and Sue, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Sue Spillane: [00:01:43] Hi, Carol. Thanks for having us.

Gabriella Bean: [00:01:45] It's great to be here, Carol.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:01:47] Well, I'm so excited to be speaking with both of you. And I want to know if we can start with each one of you giving a brief synopsis of how long you worked and what you did before your career break, and then a little bit about your career breaks and how long they were. Gabriella, would you like to start?

Gabriella Bean: [00:02:07] Certainly I'd be glad to. I had a total of eight years of work experience before my career break. I worked for Abbott Laboratories, Kellogg Cereal, and Nabisco. At those companies I worked in a variety of different roles, primarily focused on the management of engineering projects, done to support manufacturing of each of the company's products. I chose to stay home after the birth of my first son and spent 22 years raising my three boys until the youngest left for college. Sue, how about you?

Sue Spillane: [00:02:40] Great. I spent seven years before I took my career break. The first year was for a small startup company called Voltech doing research and design tasks, and for Motorola for six years of that, my roles were primarily mechanical design engineering, reliability and test engineering. And then before I left, I managed a small team of reliability and test engineers. My break was 19 years, for 12 of that I spent home raising my two children as my husband and our family were transferred around the States.

And then when we finally moved back and decided we were going to stop and stay in one place and my kids were both in school full time, I picked up some college classes, part-time teaching at McHenry County College on and off for about seven years. And I also returned to school to get my masters of science in manufacturing quality assurance.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:03:41] Great. Thanks, Sue. And thanks Gabriella. And I'm just pointing out to the audience that we're talking to two relaunchers who relaunched back into technical roles after very long career breaks. So really a special perspective we're going to get today on what it feels like to be back at work after being on career break for a very long period.

Gabriella, can you talk about how many people were in the first group of iReturn participants and the range of lengths of career breaks?

Gabriella Bean: [00:04:17] Yes. There were 15 of us in the first iRelaunch cohort who had taken time off for a variety of different reasons, many of us to raise our children, but also elder care, and just a variety of reasons that people had taken off. In order to qualify for Northrop's iReturn program, you had to have been out of the workforce by choice for at least two years. And I had the longest career break at 22 years, although that has since been surpassed by someone who was hired in the second cohort, who was actually out 23 years. For our group, the average length of the break was 11 years.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:04:53] I love it that there was a 23 year career break. So it was 15 people in the first cohort, 13 women and two men?

Gabriella Bean: [00:05:03] Correct.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:05:04] Got it. And Sue, how long was the iReturn program? Can you describe the length and what it meant to be part of it?

Sue Spillane: [00:05:16] Sure. The iReturn program was 12 weeks long. It ran from early September through early December, that was a first cohort that we had here at Northrop Grumman. And it was an incredible privilege to be part of this program. I had actually had trouble finding a job, trying to go back into the workforce and they actually took a chance on me and the rest of us, valuing our previous experience.

They provided a lot of support for all of us to ensure that we succeeded. Everybody in the program had a technical mentor and then a second mentor that was there to provide more insight into career growth and to provide us a place to go outside of our immediate group, where we could ask questions that maybe we wouldn't be comfortable asking our immediate manager.

We had weekly meetings with our group with speakers from upper management to learn more about the company as a whole. And so that we could collaborate with each other as a group of iReturners. And over time, it was really advantageous to have iReturners, they were spread throughout our facility, and to have contacts with people in other areas of the company in case you needed a question answered from their area, it was really valuable.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:06:35] Wow, and pretty amazing to be part of the inaugural cohort when the program was first launched. Sue, can you talk a little bit more about this? What kinds of roles did you have in the iReturn program? And what happened at the end of the program? Did you stay in your same roles or take new ones?

Maybe Sue, could you please start? And then Gabriella, I'd also like to hear from you on this.

Sue Spillane: [00:07:02] Absolutely, I can start. There were several positions offered for the iReturn program, and when I initially applied, I applied for a quality engineering position because I felt it was the best fit with my background and my newly-minted degree.

But after interviewing with a couple of different groups, they offered me the returnship in processing engineering. I was really unsure about it, but they insisted that they felt it was going to be the best fit for me. So I accepted and as it turns out, they were right. It was the perfect fit for my background and skills.

When I first started, I was really nervous returning to a technical role. I was worried about not being proficient with technical tools. And honestly, I was worried I wouldn't fit into the corporate environment after being out for such a long time. Luckily, I realized pretty quickly that even though the tools and technology may have changed, that people really hadn't, and being able to communicate with others was still really critical to job performance.

And I believe I had really improved my communication skills and my interpersonal skills in the time that I was out.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:08:16] You know, when I relaunched, I took an 11 year career break, I'm not a technical person, but I'm a financial analyst. I was 42 years old when I went back and I remember feeling like a very different person than when I was 29, but I felt pretty grounded and I had a more mature perspective.

And I agree, I think that was really helpful in terms of just teamwork and interacting, but I'm also noting your comments about the technical, like having a new technical layer over the engineering work, even though maybe there are some parts of it that were familiar to you.

Sue Spillane: [00:09:00] Yeah. The technical mentor that I had was excellent, and he gave me a lot of encouragement and training, and that really helped take the edge off of those fears of being able to jump right back in to a technical role. And then after the iReturn program ended, I was offered a full-time position in that same role, which I continued in for the next two years.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:09:26] That's great. And then you got a promotion to where you are now?

Sue Spillane: [00:09:30] I did, yes.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:09:34] Excellent. Gabriella, what about you? What was your experience?

Gabriella Bean: [00:09:36] Well, when I first applied for the iReturn program, I actually applied for two different roles because I wasn't quite sure what I was wanting to do after 22 years out, and what I was really qualified for after 22 years out. I applied for a supply chain position and also for a process engineering role, I interviewed for both positions and was told quickly that the supply chain area was interested in me.

And it was later, but before I started I was also contacted and told that a second group would like me to spend half of my returnship working for them, although I was never quite told the details. I started in supply chain, spent about two and a half weeks there and was pretty quickly sure that wasn't where I wanted to be, spoke to the program manager who was running iReturn and voiced my concerns and also asked, "So what's this other role that they were thinking about?" What I learned later was that it was not the process engineering role that I had interviewed for, but that manager had liked me enough and saw a fit for me that he thought was the better fit, and had spoken to the operations management team who was looking for new employees. But was not part of the iReturn program, and therefore it was all a little hazy at that time. They said, you know what, if you believe in her, we're going to give her a shot. I moved over very quickly to the operations team. And as soon as I was there, I knew this was it. This was the right fit for me. I spent the next 10 weeks coming up to speed.

As we got to the end of the iReturn program. We all wondered whether we would get permanent offers. Since it was the first time through, I will say, Northrop didn't quite have all their ducks in a row yet, which is fine. We understood that too. But they wanted to let us all know at the same time and not all the managers had made decisions simultaneously.

So we got a little nervous, especially since we all had to give a presentation at the end to the other iReturners plus their management and their mentors. And a lot of people were scared that this was what was going to decide their fate. It, of course wasn't, the presentation went well, and in the end everyone who wanted to stay found positions, most of them in the areas they were in, including I stayed in operations and have been there ever since.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:12:01] Right. And, that's one of the things that companies find out in the inaugural year that it's a pilot, they're testing. They're seeing what works, what doesn't work, what they're going to tweak for the next time that they run the program. And the program gets improved bit by bit every time it gets run. So, I completely understand what happened in the inaugural cohort, and it was great that those of you who wanted to continue, did continue, and you got these great roles.

I'm really intrigued by the discussion about the manager who saw something in you, but realized that you might be a better fit in this other part of the organization that wasn't even part of iReturn at that point, and that manager went ahead and talked to another manager to take the chance on engaging with you as part of the iReturn program. And I think that's part of what happens when a company starts a return to work program. Internally there's first a group of managers who are engaged, but then the word gets out and conversations happen and that's how more managers get involved.

And then when they have experiences like with both of you, then other managers see what's going on, and the program expands from there, and they see the caliber of candidate that's coming in to the return to work program. So I love hearing both of those stories about progression from both of you.

Gabriella, I'm just curious when you're talking about the technology piece and just in general getting settled in this corporate role, a technical role after a long career break. How long did it take you before you felt like I got this? Was there some milestone moment or did it happen gradually?

And I'm just interested in whether you think that it was different for you coming off of a career break versus someone who maybe didn't take a career break.

Gabriella Bean: [00:14:16] Sure. I think I knew almost as soon as I moved to operations that I could do the work effectively and enjoy it. It kind of felt like coming home.

I knew this was it. Things were familiar in a way. I was dealing with manufacturing again, and it just felt like the right fit. That said, I still learn new things every day, even now. And that keeps the work interesting and engaging. I will say the fact that I had a technical mentor probably made it easier for me than someone new off the streets.

I had someone who was readily available to answer any questions that I had, and I spent a good amount of time shadowing them before I was really expected to do work on my own. The other thing I realized over time is that there's a good deal of movement within Northrop Grumman and being new in a role isn't unusual.

And therefore people are very willing to help you and to answer questions. And that kind of reassured me that there wasn't a problem with asking and admitting, "Hey, I knew helped me out, please."

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:15:19] And it's really interesting that you're saying you knew very quickly that you were in the right place and that was after such a long career break.

So it makes me feel like you were in a continuation of what you were doing before your career break and over this very long period of time, but somehow it felt compressed. That's very interesting. Sue, what about you? Did you have some sort of aha moment when all of a sudden things fell into place or was it more of a gradual process?

Sue Spillane: [00:15:47] I think for me it was more of a gradual process. It took me a little longer than Gabriella to feel really comfortable in my role. It was about six months before I really felt like I had the training connections within the company that I needed to really be effective. The products that we manufacture are very complex and there's a lot to learn.

My previous job was with consumer products and moving to the defense industry, it's very different. Several people told me that it's normal for someone new to take this long, to come up to speed at Northrop Grumman. And that I was doing well. Initially, I worried that they were just being nice, but after observing other new employees at the company, I know now that it is true, I don't think it took me any longer than other people who come in from outside the company to fill my same role.

So it's not unusual.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:16:45] That was going to be my next question. And I'm glad you addressed it right away, because I think it's worth noting employers who are listening to our conversation, as well as relaunchers, that there is an adjustment period that happens for any new employee, career break or no career break.

And, Sue, you're saying that the career break wasn't really so much of an issue in terms of you getting to that point. That it was pretty typical for even people who didn't take career breaks, who were in a new role. So, I think that's worth noting. Now, I love this, that we get the opportunity to speak to both of you just over three years later, because now you can look back on the beginning of your relaunch and how things have evolved since the very beginning. And, Sue I want to know if you can take us through how your role has changed over time.

Sue Spillane: [00:17:43] Sure, absolutely. When I first started with process engineering, I started in one production area and I pretty much concentrated on supporting that one production area for my first year.

And then as I became more comfortable in the role, additional responsibilities were added by my managers. I picked up support for an additional production area. When the engineer there left, suddenly I supported that area for several months, in addition to my initial one. And then when my replacement came, I trained my replacement.

I also added special projects that increased my experience and visibility within the company. And they were always willing to provide me with as much work as I felt that I could handle and continue to grow. I was constantly challenged and I will say that in a good way, not in a bad way. And the work was always interesting.

So then after two years I realized that I missed managing a team like I had done before I left. And I was looking around for possibilities. When a position opened up for a manufacturing engineering manager, I thought it was quick to be making the jump over, but it sounded like a really good fit for me.

So I applied and was offered the position. So for the past year I've been managing a 10 person team of manufacturing engineers. And compared to my previous management position, it's a much bigger job. I have a lot more responsibility than I had when I was managing at Motorola. And in many ways it's been like starting all over again because it's a completely different role.

But this time I think I had more confidence. I knew I could handle the change.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:19:32] Very interesting. And you know, the idea that you're feeling like maybe it was a little bit of a stretch, but when they're looking at you with your entire career path and the fact that you're a relauncher and the perspective that you have coming back after the career break, that could have been a factor too, in addition to obviously you were doing great work, ever since you relaunched in the couple of years before. So congratulations. That's very exciting.

Sue Spillane: [00:20:07] Thank you so much.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:20:08] Yeah. Gabriella, what about you?

Gabriella Bean: [00:20:11] Sure. When I began in operations, I was in charge of the repair of Vipers, which is part of our LAIRCOM, which is, large aircraft infrared countermeasure system, which protects large aircraft from ground to air missiles. My role entailed ensuring that the repairs were done within quality specs budget, and within a required turnaround time.

The operations manager is the point person between program management, the manufacturing team, engineering, quality, business management and supply chain. I really enjoy the position because I work with so many different roles and I'm directly involved with the manufacturing process. After about six months in my position, I was asked to take on the management of the second product line ATWs, which also fits into that LAIRCOM system. This was a stretch for me as the product blend involved different programs, different people, and also was managed quite a bit differently. But this time around, I had a solid base to build on.

And within a few months I had begun to bring positive changes to this product line. After almost two years at Northrop and having made significant contributions on those repair areas, I was given a new role within operations. I was asked to support the Kirkham Program, which is a newer developmental program, which was moving towards full rate production.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:21:35] Let me just interrupt you there. What is Kirkham?

Gabriella Bean: [00:21:40] I was just getting there. So an infrared countermeasure system, but this one is for lighter weight. It's a lighter weight system, which is intended for use on helicopters also to protect from enemy missiles. This transition was a lot harder for me, as I had little to no overlap with the person whose position I was taking over from, and while the tools for depo and production are similar, they're not the same.

And things are looked at in kind of a different mindset. So I kind of had to find my own way, and it was a struggle for a while. And certainly that six month time period that Sue mentioned definitely applied here as I moved into the Kirkham area. But the move was meant to give me a bigger and more visible role. And with time it definitely has.

We were able to move the program successfully from the development phase through various low rate production phases, to the point where we are now anticipating the award of our first full rate production contract within the next few months. And I personally am being recognized as a major contributor to our success there, which is immensely rewarding.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:48] Wow. Congratulations to you also! I just love hearing about the progression and the responsibility level, and also that you're getting recognized for a significant contribution. And this is all within a three-year period of relaunching.

Gabriella, is there anything that you wish you had done differently or that you know now that you wished you had known right when you started, or how do you look at that over the last three years?

Gabriella Bean: [00:23:20] There's nothing that really comes to mind for me. There have certainly been moments during the last three years where I've had serious doubts about myself and whether I could do this, I waited for someone to call me out due to my career gap saying, you're not qualified to do this right.

Instead I've been respected, encouraged and taken very seriously. I'm now actually part of a mentoring program within the company and have had discussions with various managers as to my next career moves. When I returned to work, I was looking for a job. Now I am actually thinking about a career.

It's kind of hard to believe.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:23:55] Wow. That's awesome. Sue, what about you? How do you look at things over the last three years in terms of what you wish you had known, or if you would have done anything differently?

Sue Spillane: [00:24:09] Honestly, if I could go all the way back to when I left my previous position with Motorola, I would have done a better job at planning my return to work.

It just never occurred to me that I'd have trouble going back to work. And I didn't plan to be out for as long as I was it just, it kind of developed. If I were going to do it again, I would have stayed more active in professional organizations and stayed connected to my old contacts.

It's not that you can't come back, obviously, Gabriella and I both did it after, completely leaving everything behind, but I think it would have been easier. In terms of when I started working again, I wish I would have had more confidence in my abilities right away. I spent a lot of time in the first couple of months, I was so tentative. I kept waiting for somebody smarter or more experienced to come along and check my work or tell me that I was doing okay. And, in the end, I realized that I knew what I needed to know. I had the skills that I needed to do a good job. So I wish I would have had more confidence at the beginning.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:25:22] You know, I love your comment about, "I didn't plan to be out so long." We hear that a lot. People think they're only going to be out two or three years and then they wake up one day and 10 and years have gone by. And so these career breaks often end up being longer and sometimes much longer than you originally intended.

But Sue, I'm wondering if you still think about yourself as a relauncher? Was there a certain point where you kind of shed that part and left it behind or, do you still feel on some level like you're an ambassador for the iReturn program? And how do you think about that?

Sue Spillane: [00:26:04] I think I'll always think of myself as a real launcher. I don't think I'm ever going to leave that behind. The iReturn program at Northrop Grumman was so amazing and I'm always looking for ways to support it. I want to make sure it continues. I think it's such a benefit for both the relaunchers and the company.

I've acted as an iReturn mentor and participated in panels and interview days. And the first thing I tell them when I meet them is that it's going to take that time to get up to speed and it's normal. It's okay. Don't worry. And I also emphasize that if they're feeling overwhelmed, they should reach out.

Reach out to their manager or their mentor or their technical mentor. Don't suffer in silence. There's always help if you ask for it. And I think finally, I tell them to work on relationship building within the company. It'll make their job easier and more enjoyable.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:27:01] Great advice. Gabriella, what about you and your relationship to being a relauncher?

Gabriella Bean: [00:27:08] Like Susan, I will always be a relauncher and an iReturner, I think that's just part of who we are. And I'm very thrilled to have been part of Northrop's program. I too do everything I can to support their program because I want to see it continue. And I want to see it spread. I've been on the panels on their interview days for the subsequent cohorts that they've had at Rolling Meadows and have served as both a mentor and as a technical mentor during the past three years.

It thrills me to no end that the operations area has since hired two other iReturners. It tells me they are pleased with my work and that they're willing to take that chance with others who have had the career break. And I was privileged to be the technical mentor for one of those, actually, for both of those people, bringing them up to speed.

As far as what I tell iReturners, my favorite advice is to never hesitate to ask questions. It's the only way you're really going to learn. I know there were times I hesitated because I felt like I was admitting that I was somehow unqualified. But I've come to realize it's the only way you can really move forward.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:28:13] Yeah. That hesitation to ask a question is very common among relaunchers when they're in the early stages of being back on the job for exactly the reason you state, you get worried if you ask a question, somehow it's perceived as a dumb question, that all of a sudden your qualifications are going to be questioned or, why are we having this program and who are these relaunchers? I remember, I wasn't part of a program when I relaunched, and also it was a very long time ago in 2001, but I remember thinking that if this doesn't work out for me, then I'm ruining it for all the relaunchers who come after me.

But the both of you are such amazing examples and role models of what is possible being in technical roles and progressing the way both of you have after such long career breaks. So I can imagine that when the new iReturners are listening to you or being mentored by you, whatever you say to them carries so much weight.

So I really appreciate you sharing that advice with our audience as well.

Well, we're wrapping up right now and I want to ask both of you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is the best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

So, Sue , would you like to start?

Sue Spillane: [00:29:42] Oh sure. I think my piece of advice that I would give is to seek out a support network with other relaunchers if you can. We were lucky in that at Northrop Grumman, we had a pretty big cohort of relaunchers. So it was a little easier for us, but I don't know if I'd have been as successful in that first year without the support of Gabriella and some of the other iReturners, we just really supported each other.

It helps to have someone who's going through the same experiences. You feel like you're not alone. So, even if you don't have that ability within your own company, if you're relaunching, if you're the only one or there's only one or two of you, reach out. I think there's a broader network now that you can tap into to actually just commiserate and share your successes and your challenges.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:30:36] Yeah. I wrote an article for Harvard Business Review called The Power of the Cohort in Career Reentry Programming, and it is so powerful, in the way that you're describing the members of the cohort support each other on the personal and professional side. And in terms of networks, that's one of the things that we do at iRelaunch. We have a private Facebook group, that's an alumni group. So people who have relaunched and it could be people who have relaunched in places where there is not a program. So they don't have a built-in cohort. But it's a way to connect with other people and have that kind of comradery that Sue is referencing. Gabriella, what about you?

Gabriella Bean: [00:31:17] Well, I certainly agree with Susan and she and I were fortunate to actually work together in the same area, different roles, but in the same area. And I definitely was glad she was around and we have definitely, as the new cohorts have come in, tried to have lunches with them and help them out so that the networking is definitely key.

As far as other ideas, if you're still out there looking. Don't hesitate to own your break, regardless of why you've been out. It was the right decision for you. It doesn't make you less capable and it doesn't reduce your potential. I would say, be able to verbalize how any of your volunteer work that you may have done while you were out, can support the role that you're interested in.

Certainly a lot of what I did paralleled in many ways what I'm doing now. And finally I think companies are learning that relaunchers tend to be very dedicated employees, as they really want to be back in the workplace, and often by choice are back in the workplace. And that's a plus for employers. So letting people know that is a plus.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:32:25] Excellent advice. And I'm glad you said that because we find across the board that relaunchers are dedicated and loyal for exactly the reasons you state Gabriella. And, you know, I remember myself chomping at the bit to get back to work. I took an 11 year career break, it was in year nine that I started to realize it, and we find that energy and enthusiasm that relaunchers bring, because we're so excited to be back at work, is something special that gets injected into our work teams. So a really good point. I want to mention before we close out that if people in our audience want more information about the iReturn program to go to and you can search for iReturn and, sometimes, I even just put Northrop Grumman iReturn into my search bar and I can get it to come up that way too. And then you can find out more about the program and when they're running it and details.

Gabriella and Sue, thank you so much for joining us today.

Gabriella Bean: [00:33:25] We were glad to be here.

Sue Spillane: [00:33:27] Absolutely. It was wonderful.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:33:30] And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to

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