August 2009- Rosie the Riveter aside, it's traditionally been hard for women to imagine themselves in skilled manufacturing jobs. The truth is, many women have made successful careers for themselves as machinists, electricians and welders. But look at any company photo of shop-floor employees, and you'll see it's still very much a man's domain.
One community college in northern Alabama is looking to change the perceptions of welding and electrical jobs among the area's young women through a specialized summer camp program.
For the past three summers, Calhoun Community College, Decatur, Ala., has offered a free, weeklong summer camp for area high school girls, focusing on welding and electrical technology.
Developed in conjunction with the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce Workforce Development Committee, the Summer Welding and Electrical Technology (SWeETy) camp offers participants hands-on experience that can lead to high-paying, fulfilling careers in manufacturing and technical industries. As camp coordinator Gwen Baker explains, the camp was established to help "increase the number of young women interested in pursuing careers in welding and electrical technology. This was done in response to the area industry need for skilled welders and electricians and particularly for women with these skills."
The full tour
Participants in SWeETy camp spend their first day in orientation, which includes safety briefings, and are then divided into two groups. Each group spends a day and a half with an instructor, doing hands-on welding or electrical technology projects. And every day during lunch, the girls hear from and spend time with women who are involved in welding and electrical technology. On the fifth day, instructors and campers tour local industries that specialize in these fields. Finally, parents are invited to join the campers at lunch on the last day to see their projects and learn about their experiences at the camp.
"We would like the girls to leave the camp with a basic knowledge of welding and electrical technology and also with a greater knowledge of and interest in technical careers in general and what it takes to enter these fields," says Baker. "By bringing in speakers from all levels of industry--from the shop floor to the CEO's office--we also demonstrate to them that there is a wide range of careers in these technologies."
According to Baker, there are plenty of high-wage, high-demand welding and electronics jobs in northern Alabama for girls who pursue either field. The biggest hurdle seems to be educating girls about these possibilities, as most who attend the camp begin with little background knowledge.
"They're surprised that [welding and electronics are] more difficult but also more fun than they expected," says Baker.
"My mom found out about this online, and I really like trying new experiences, so I decided to come," said Casey Hamer, a student at Woodville High School, in a press release. "The welding is fun, and it's something I might do later."
Even though the stereotype is that manufacturing is a down-and-dirty job for men, the truth is the skills necessary to be a successful welder or electrician know no gender. And even if SWeETy attendees don't end up pursuing either trade, what they learn will certainly aid them in whatever career they do choose.
"We hope they recognize the value of learning a skill that can always be relied on, no matter what career they ultimately decide to pursue," says Baker. MM