By Andrea Rumbaugh Houston Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Women make up nearly half the U.S. labor force but only 27 percent of manufacturing employees. In an effort to increase the number of women in manufacturing, 65 high school girls in the Houston area participated in a special event to mark "Nationwide Manufacturing Day."
High school sophomores Angie Benitez and Nikole Morales stared intently at their invention made from paper and Popsicle sticks. They slowly poured in marbles and beads to see if their design would separate the two.
Small beads were supposed to flow to the bottom through gaps created by taping the sticks together. But the marbles clogged the system and the beads couldn't flow through. As the two girls tweaked their design, nearby college students provided encouragement. This is what engineering is about. Test an idea, then improve it.
Benitez and Morales were among 65 high school girls from Alief Independent School District participating in an event Friday at the University of Houston. Part of the nationwide Manufacturing Day, the local festivities were focused on attracting, retaining and advancing women in the industry.
"The whole point of national Manufacturing Day is to create an experience that opens students up to opportunities they never knew existed," said Jennifer McNelly, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute.
And with manufacturers facing a skilled labor shortage, she said, women are an "untapped labor pool." Women make up nearly half the U.S. labor force but only 27 percent of manufacturing employees, according to a report by The Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte and supply chain association APICS.
That's partly because manufacturing isn't introduced to women before they make career decisions and partly because it is viewed as being dirty, gritty and physically demanding. Patricia Rossman, chief diversity officer for chemical manufacturer BASF Corp., said some aspects of manufacturing will always require physical labor, but most positions in modern manufacturing defy that stereotype.
"For the most part, technology and work conditions have evolved," she said.
Today's manufacturing requires technical and problem-solving skills and a healthy dash of curiosity, Rossman said. It provides well-paying jobs for a variety of educational levels, ranging from technical to doctoral degrees.
The local event at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering was hosted by The Manufacturing Institute, BASF Corp. and UH. The theme was pay it forward, allowing women of different ages and career stages to assist one another.
The college students worked with high school students, including Benitez and Morales. As part of Alief ISD's Career and Technical Education Early College High School, they will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree.
Benitez is studying welding and electrical. She wants to go to college and study engineering but said welding could be a backup. Morales is studying HVAC -- heating, ventilation and air conditioning -- because she knows it pays well and could help her attend college and become a veterinarian.
A few tables away, sophomore Angelique Brown was using a cereal box, plastic spoon, Popsicle sticks and rubber bands to build a catapult. As she pulled back the spoon, the ball flew over the college student's head instead of knocking down cups stacked on the table. Its power emitted cheers.
Brown, part of the school district's STEM program, has a knack for geometry.
"I love math," she said. "It always has an answer."
Amira Spikes was one of the college students assisting Brown with her catapult. "It's going to be amazing," she said as they adjusted its design.
Spikes, a sophomore studying biology and environmental science at UH, remembers being younger and looking up to women at events like this. She hopes the diversity present on Friday -- with people of different race, hair styles, weight, etc. -- can help the girls find someone to identify with and inspire them.
After helping the high schoolers, college students ate lunch with career women. Some of the more senior women shared stories with the entire audience: How they progressed in their careers, how they balanced it with children and how they reinvented themselves for new opportunities.
McNelly, with The Manufacturing Institute, finished the event with a call to action. Find some way, big or small, to advance women in manufacturing. She wants to hear about these actions when she returns for an event in February.
"I will look forward to telling the story of momentum here in the Houston area," she said.