Preparing Women For Engineering Technology
By Steve Hoffius
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1979, pp. 10-13
Katherine Prior is a nurse, a long-time nurse. For 18 years she has worked at hospitals in the Carolinas, returned to classes for more education, and now is a licensed, practical nurse. She has never made more than $4.10 an hour.
She’s tired of it.
Now, on a morning when she is scheduled for night work, she looks a little uncomfortable. She stands in an air conditioning and refrigeration workshop at Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C., wearing protective goggles and holding an acetylene torch. Hesitantly, she moves the torch around two joined pieces of copper tubing, turning them a cherry red, and melts silver solder between them. She takes off her goggles and squints to see how she did. A little too much solder, says the instructor, but a good job. She has just soldered her first tube, and puts it aside carefully, beaming with pride. “I want to show my husband,” she says. “He won’t believe it.”
“How much could a woman make if she went into air conditioning work?” someone asks the instructor. “Oh, she’d start out around $4.00 an hour” – Katherine’s eyes widen – “and then after about three years, after she became a full-fledged technician, from $8.00 to $10.00.” Katherine smiles and shakes her head. “Three years?” she asks. “Sounds all right to me.”
Katherine and dozens of other Charleston-area women are members of a new program at Trident, a model for others around the country; FACET/FACIT. The acronym stands for Female Access to Careers in Engineering Technology and in Industrial Technology. Its purpose is to prepare women for high-paying jobs in fields not traditionally open to them.
Pat is also a nurse, making about the same pay as Katherine. She has worked in hospitals for eight years and decided recently to move toward a higher paying job. She visited Trident Tec’s downtown campus to investigate the classes necessary toward earning her RN degree and then her Masters. With that degree she hoped she could find a job teaching in a nursing program. Instead she found out about FACET/FACIT. “With this,” she says, “I don’t have to take six years, I can make more money, and I’ve got a better chance for a sure job.”
Her family doesn’t like it. “My mother keeps telling me, “You’ve got a good job. Why don’t you keep on nursing?’ I tell her ‘It’s my job and it’s my life.’ And then when my brother comes home from the Navy Yard and tells me how much he makes welding, well, I know it’s time for a change.”
According to Trident officials, traditional jobs for women – secretarial, nursing, dental hygienist, teacher – pay salaries that average in the $6,000 – $9,000 range. Many jobs that have been identified as “for men only” in businesses and industries offer salaries that average about $4,000 more. “And the jobs are available,” insists Kay Mathers, acting director of the program. “One of the reasons we started this program was that industries came to us looking for help in meeting affirmative action requirements. They need women, and until now the women simply weren’t available.”
The FACET/FACIT program has two main components. In one part of the program, high school girls are offered eight weeks of daily classes, films, and tours to acquaint them with job possibilities in the surrounding area. They learn about communication skills, the different requirements for various jobs, the problems and benefits of each, and take part in “hands-on” workshops in which they work with small engines, instruments and tools. Once or twice a week, they tour local plants – everything from the town of Hanahan’s water works to the Polaris Missile Facility – and see for themselves what jobs in engineering and engineering technology would entail.
The second part of the program is the section
in which Katherine and Pat are enrolled. It is directed toward women who are beyond high school age, who hold jobs but feel the need, as Katherine and Pat do, to make a change in their careers. These women gather weekly for a three-hour “Career Exploration Course.” For one hour they hear about a particular job area chemical, mechanical, electronic, architectural, and civil engineering technologies; welding; drafting; and more – usually from a woman already employed in the field. She explains the work, the pay, the other employees and their reactions to women in the field, and she answers questions.
“One of the stock questions,” says Mathers, “is ‘How does your husband feel about your job?’ and ‘How are you treated as a woman there?’ The answers to the first one vary. To the second one it’s usually that at first men test the women a lot, but when they find the women can do the job, they accept them. Other questions deal with how to handle the extra assistance that men often give and how to deal with advancing ahead of qualified men. Because of affirmative action, that’s a real issue now. One woman in the class assumed that the woman in that position wouldn’t take the advancement. It just wasn’t fair, she said. The other woman laughed. ‘You’re damn right I took it,’ she said.
During the remaining two hours of the class, students participate in workshop experiences. In a class on aircraft maintenance, they test metal parts for hairline cracks. In the air conditioning and refrigeration class, where Katherine and Pat took part, they cut copper tubing, widen one end of a piece (“swedge it,” said the instructor), and then solder the two together. The lecture for that session had been uninspiring. None of the students asked questions. No area women could be found who worked in the field, so the class was taught by a male Trident instructor. He said in his seven years at Tec, no woman had ever entered the program. “I’d like to see some women get into air conditioning I refrigeration here,” he said, “if only because it makes a special difference in the classes it’s hard to explain just how – from when it’s all men.” The women rolled their eyes and nodded. They seemed to have an idea of the change their presence would make in an all-male class.
But when they reached the workshop, their eyes widened and mouths dropped open as each tool was used. The cooling unit of a refrigerator had been turned on before the class, and the coils were covered with frost. One by one, the women slowly approached it, and reached out their hands to the coils, withdrawing them quickly, their fingertips covered with snow. “Goll-ee,” one whispered.
The career exploration workshops cover fields in which some of the women are already interested, and others – like air conditioning repair and installation – that few had ever considered. In these, the workshop experiences seem to make the difference, and change a foreign field to an exciting one. When the instructors offered up the acetylene torches, the women raced for them.
These FACET/FACIT programs, though, are really only preparation. A woman who has been through the program will be familiar with engineering and industrial jobs, but will not yet be trained for one. That’s the long-term goal of the program: to supply women with enough information and encouragement that they will take the step that until now has rarely been considered, to enroll in an engineering or industrial program at Tec or another college.
The program’s classes take care of the information. For the encouragement, Mathers and the other staff members have set up extensive opportunities for counseling and support sessions.
Here they serve both women in both the preparation programs and the engineering technology classes.
“Before classes started last time,” Mathers explains, “I sent out letters to all instructors asking them to let us know when women in their classes seemed to be having a hard time. We get together with them and talk. We have counselors on the staff. We can get them plenty of tutoring assistance. And we have “Nurture Sessions” – we have to change the name, some of the women feel that at their ages they don’t need “nurturing” – in which we get together all the women engineering technology students. We have some programs for them, and some social gatherings. We try to have second year students together with the first year students, as a way of saying ‘Look, I got through it. You can, too.”
Apparently the program is succeeding. In the spring of 1977, just 6% of the students in Tec’s engineering technology classes and 2% of those in industrial technology were women. In the spring 1979 quarter, after one year of the preparation classes, 17% of the engineering technology and 6% of the industrial technology students were women. In those two years the number enrolled in both had increased from 50 to 175. Beyond that, many enrolled in school programs elsewhere. Of 28 senior high school girls in the program last year, 20 enrolled in engineering or engineering technology programs in the fall.
The program’s success is spreading, too. Already similar ones have been established at three other South Carolina Technical colleges: Orangeb urg-Calhoun, Tn-County, and Greenville. Schools in 30 states have requested information, and 46 video copies of the program’s 12minute explanatory film have been mailed out.
FACET/FACIT has been funded for two years now, first by the S.C. State Department of Vocational Education ($61,000) and then under the federal Career Incentive Act ($90,000). The response has been so positive, says Trident Vice President for Development Mary Jolly, that it is about to become a regular part of the Trident offering. “Women,” she explains, “are a major part of the workforce – half the women between 18 and 64 are working. If these women have special needs, if they need special education, then we have a responsibility to take care of that. That’s what a technical college is here for.”
The college also needs the students for more selfish reasons. Shortly before FACET/FACIT was begun, the school was forced to lay off five of its engineering technology instructors because of dropping enrollment. The increase in women had come when the school has needed them most.
Trident, however, needs the students no more than the students need the special training. Both Katherine and Pat admit that they would rather stay in nursing, if they could. But when 18 years experience produces no more than $4.10 an hour, it is inevitable that women will move from the field of nursing – or teaching or secretarial work or other low-paying jobs – into new areas. Thanks to affirmative action, jobs in skilled, high-paying trades are now available to women. And thanks to Trident’s new program, women are receiving the push needed to fill those jobs.
Steve Hoffius is a free-lance writer in Charleston, SC. He is a former intern with SRC’s Southern Voices, and staff member of Southern Exposure