As Executive Director for Education for the GE Foundation, Kelli Wells influences the future of American engineering. She’s focused on managing partnerships to close the skills gap and ignite a spark of passion in students as they realize what being an engineer really means.
Q: Solving the capacity challenge, or the “skills gap,” is a priority of GE Foundation. How do these efforts specifically benefit engineers?
As the first digital industrial company, GE is acutely aware of the need to expand the number of students who ultimately pursue degrees and careers in engineering fields and to broaden the participation of underrepresented populations. Increasing engineering skills for all students is critical to achieving a scientifically and technologically literate society that will enhance our nation’s global competitiveness.
Through our commitment to engineering, we are investing in the next generation’s problem solvers to look at what will be needed in the economy and address it through world-class education pipelines. We are working across stakeholder lines to equip all students with the education, skills and training that they need for the demands of the workforce and the global labor economy. Through our initiatives, engineers cultivate both technical skills and essential skills necessary for career success.
Q: Tell us about the concept behind the GE Brilliant Career Labs. How are the lab’s physical and virtual learning experiences helping students explore career options and find future engineering jobs?
The GE Brilliant Career Lab is a first-of-its-kind mobile and digital technology lab experience designed to prepare students for the digital industrial jobs of the future. The mobile lab combines experiential learning with career-readiness planning in high-demand STEM fields, offering both technical skills development and essential skills training. Through the mobile lab, students become familiar with new technologies, such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, and programming tools. They are able to work on projects to help them understand the uses and features of the equipment. The Brilliant Career Lab’s virtual experience website houses career assessments that identify potential STEM and computer science careers paths for each student, and interactive activities that teach students about specific opportunities based on their interests and skills.
Q: Do you have a story you can share of a student who benefitted from the GE Foundation and went on to pursue a career in engineering?
Three years ago, a Boston student, Rafaelo, and his mother moved from Puerto Rico to Boston with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., despite his mother having secured a job at Walgreens, they became homeless and landed in various shelters. Finally, an aunt was able to take them in. The apartment complex they lived in had rampant drug use, gangs and violence. Each day was a struggle because he was focused on surviving, which meant, staying out of gangs, staying clear of drugs and staying out of fights.
Six months ago, Rafaelo was introduced to the Brilliant Career Lab and began exploring various STEM careers for the first time. Rafaelo’s world began to open with possibility; he took a career assessment and fell in love with the idea of becoming an engineer. This spark has grown into a passion, and Rafaelo said, for the first time, “I can see myself going to college. I learned that I could study computer science and become a video game designer.” Rafaelo is currently working on his application to several Boston area colleges with the goal of becoming an engineer.
Q: The course of your career includes an impressive twenty years at GE. Before your current role in corporate citizenship, you worked in asset management, quality, and international marketing. What have you gained from trying out different roles in different areas of the business?
For me, cultivating different perspectives is critical. I am grateful for the various roles that I have held because they inform my thinking now. I am able to approach problems from different angles.
I also think it helps me to be empathetic. In my work, I engage with business leaders, educators, students and politicians. Because I have worked in various roles, I am able to see different perspectives. I am able to build connections, identify shared values, and build cohesion among stakeholders.
As I talk to students, I stress my diverse background and tell them that the skills that they develop are not necessarily about specific technical skills, but more broadly about becoming a problem solver, a critical thinker, a dreamer and a doer. These are skills that are fundamental to success no matter the job title.
…being an engineer is the privilege of being the most creative problem solver in the world – with the tools to actually solve the problem! It doesn’t get better than that!
Q: What do you enjoy most about helping the next generation of engineers and scientists?
It is so exciting to see the spark of intrigue in a student. And then it’s even more fulfilling to watch that spark turn into genuine interest, turn into a college experience, turn into a career. Passion starts somewhere, and I am in the great position of being able to watch that process happen with students every day.
On a personal level, I love our country and love that we are a nation of innovators. At the heart of being an engineer is creativity and ingenuity. When people tell me that being an engineer or a scientist is boring, I am aghast. I tell them that being an engineer is the privilege of being the most creative problem solver in the world – with the tools to actually solve the problem! It doesn’t get better than that!
But when I look around our country, we have a problem. We have an education system that is not linked to industry. We have companies that have jobs that can’t be filled because the employee pipeline doesn’t have the necessary skills. I love my job because I am sitting at the crossroads of this challenge, and helping to solve it. I am strengthening our future economy and the health of our country by investing in skills and opportunities of our students. It is humbling.
Q: What’s next for GE Foundation?
The GE Foundation remains committed to empowering all 14-24-year olds to become globally productive citizens by providing access to learning experiences necessary for the workforce of tomorrow. We will continue our initiative in Boston and as we continue to achieve successes in partnership with our best-in-class nonprofit partners, we will extend impact across Massachusetts and the nation by scaling Boston assets and best practices, sharing learnings, convening the best minds and showcasing what is possible. As we move forward, our lens will be toward scale in the areas of collaboration, empowerment and innovation in the areas of education and skills.