Edison Mentorship Program Gives Students a Glimpse of the Future
Before he became a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cal Poly Pomona, S. Sean Monemi worked for more than a decade at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public utility in the country.
“When I started my career as an engineer, I was confused,” Monemi says. It’s a common sentiment among engineers who are just starting out. “It would be good if someone had an idea what their daily task and work would look like.”
With Southern California Edison’s Pomona offices located at the university’s Innovation Village and hundreds of professional engineers literally across the street, conditions were perfect to launch the new SCE/CPP Mentoring Program. Last spring, the program kicked off with a class of 22 students and 20 mentors. The pilot venture with SCE targeted electrical engineering students and was the College of Engineering’s first corporate mentoring program, with future partnerships with other companies in the works.
The mentorship is not an internship. There is no academic credit and no pay. It’s a more informal, getting-to-know-the-workplace relationship that can benefit both SCE engineering professionals and Cal Poly Pomona students who are preparing to start their careers.
“I think our students know the value of getting matched with a professional engineer,” says Lily Gossage, director of Cal Poly Pomona’s Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP) program. She and MEP staff member Scott Chang worked closely with SCE’s Leo Labra, a human resources consultant and university recruiter, to coordinate the mentoring program.
Though filling jobs isn’t the primary goal for SCE or Cal Poly Pomona, the mentor program quickly produced results: Four students who participated were hired as interns. SCE pays interns $18 to $26 an hour. Three — including one intern — were offered full-time jobs, with 2017 electrical engineering graduates and former mentees Travon Dent and Antonio Nunez hired directly without serving an SCE internship. Starting salary for entry-level engineering positions is about $70,000.
The mentorships might have made the difference.
“It is competitive,” Labra says, noting that SCE receives 100 to 250 applications for each entry-level position. “In the past, for those individuals who may not be as strong on paper or may not have internship experience, they may be overlooked. Travon and Antonio, had they not had the opportunity to work directly with our engineers, might have been overlooked.”
One-on-one interaction tells SCE something about students they can’t see on paper.
“What I keep telling a lot of students is, we’re trying to find the balance between having somebody who can be very technical but also somebody who can have really effective soft skills, people skills,” says SCE senior engineer Rebeca Sandoval who mentored Suthasinee “Sue” Virnig and Shahzoda Akhmedova, both juniors.
The value of the mentorship is not only reflected in future earnings. Seeing minorities and women in the workplace is meaningful for Cal Poly Pomona engineering students. About 38 percent of the university’s 5,800 engineering students are historically underrepresented minorities, and 21 percent are women.
Virnig learned that SCE’s culture is welcoming toward women but acknowledges she occasionally has felt slighted by male engineering students in class.
“Not here,” she says, sitting in a conference room at SCE. “Everyone is very accepting. If you ask anyone, they are willing to teach you anything.”
The kickoff for the SCE/CPP Mentoring Program last April was meant to help make connections. Think of it as speed dating for engineers.
“It was like, ‘What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite sport?’” says Jad Farah, a distribution engineer for SCE who also holds an MBA and mentored John Paul Dulay, an electrical engineering senior. “They chose topics where it’s easy for people to open up, and they gave us a couple of minutes to exchange phone numbers and emails. Once you have a phone number, it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Next week. Let’s do it.’”
Questions like “Are you a morning or night person?” don’t have anything to do with the electrical grid or prospects for sustainable energy, but they are a starting place for a comfortable relationship. The program further encourages relationship-building through off-campus events, such as a bowling outing for students and professional engineers.
“Your mentor is not your manager, so you can talk about anything,” Virnig says.
Nunez, who went straight from mentee to employee, listened closely to the lessons SCE mentor and alumnus Bryon Watkins (’11, electrical engineering) offered when they met for lunch at Chick-fil-A in Walnut.
“For example, he would say, ‘You have two jobs, your daily tasks and your networking tasks within the company and outside the company,’” Nunez says. “That’s to move up in your career. That’s the biggest thing I took from the mentorship — networking.
“The hardest part is just getting your foot in the door. Then once you get your foot in the door, you have a means to socialize with other SCE employees and that leads to doors opening up.”
The benefits for students are obvious, but SCE is enthusiastic about the program too.
“For us as an organization, we’re not only giving back to the community but it’s also helping us form a pipeline, whether it’s for internships or entry-level positions,” says Labra, the SCE recruiter.
Mentoring a student is professional development for engineers too.
“I think a lot of engineers at Edison are driven and they are looking for growth opportunities to be managers and mentors,” Farah says. “When you hear about an opportunity such as working with a university and building this personal relationship between you and a Cal Poly Pomona student, I think this is when it hits it home.
“When the mentorship was over, John Paul reached out and asked, ‘Can you be my reference?’” Farah says. “It’s pretty nice to have him think of me as a reference and for me be able to provide feedback on what he was able to do.”
The students, SCE employees, and Cal Poly Pomona faculty and staff all say they’re eager for the program to continue, with the suggestion that it last longer than 10 weeks, something that should be solved by Cal Poly Pomona’s transition to a semester system in fall 2018. One thing is certain: SCE’s three buildings at Innovation Village aren’t hard to find.
Transforming the Engineering Workforce, One Woman at a Time
In 2016, only 9.6 percent of electrical and electronics engineers in the U.S. workforce were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Rebeca Sandoval, a senior engineer for Southern California Edison, wants to change that.
The 13-year SCE employee mentored two women in the new SCE/CPP Mentoring Program, which launched in the spring.
“The beauty of it for me and another reason I want to do it is because I know there are not that many female mentors for our female students,” Sandoval says. “The minute they asked who wanted to volunteer, I think a lot of us actually jumped at the opportunity.”
Sandoval estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the engineers in her department are women.
“It’s still very small, but when I started with the company 13 years ago, it was maybe three or four female engineers in the group,” she says. “So now it’s changing. My senior manager wants to recruit and hire more women and is very aggressive when it comes to that.”
Sandoval and one of her mentees, Suthasinee “Sue” Virnig had actually met before they reconnected at the program kickoff in April. Virnig, an electrical engineering junior and member of the Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP) program at Cal Poly Pomona, attended an earlier open house at SCE and recognized Sandoval as the employee who had called her name for an interview.
“Before I was called in — it was my first interview in the field of engineering — she asked, ‘Do you need water? Do you need to use the restroom?’ She was so nice and told me, ‘Don’t be nervous,’” says Virnig, who landed an internship even before beginning the mentoring program.
Born in Thailand, Virnig went to high school in Alabama and transferred to Cal Poly Pomona from Glendale Community College. Sandoval was born in El Salvador and came to the United States at 18 before attending East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and graduating from Cal State L.A.
Virnig considered pharmacy before deciding the work wasn’t interesting to her. Sandoval only knew she wanted to do something related to science and math.
“And being a doctor was out of the picture when I saw blood,” Sandoval says with a laugh. “I think Sue and I have some of that same background. We came here when we were a little older, we are first generation - so we identify a lot.”
For Sandoval, it was a mentor at ELAC who made the difference, encouraging her to keep pressing on despite it being “a man’s world” and telling her, “You cannot quit.”
“Actually, it was a guy,” Sandoval says. “I had a lot of mentors, but no women. That’s why I’m so strong about mentoring women.”