This piece by Business Reporter Stephen Singer originally appeared in The Hartford Courant February 5, 2018.
As Connecticut looks to hire more engineers for the state’s booming aerospace and defense industries, universities and employers are tapping an overlooked segment of the workforce: women.
Engineering schools and businesses are increasingly graduating and hiring more women in what traditionally is a male-dominated field. That means greater opportunities not only for women with math and science skills, but also for companies in Connecticut scrambling to hire workers to build commercial and military jet engines, helicopters and submarines.
“We need the talent. We need the numbers. We need more engineers,” said Louis Manzione, dean of the College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture at the University of Hartford.
Kevin McLaughlin, director of engineering diversity programs at the University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering, said hiring more women not only expands the workforce but also the potential to solve problems.
“To only have some minds at the table doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The change is being driven by engineering schools reaching out to students with different backgrounds, manufacturers broadening the field of recruits and businesses seeking engineers who understand how other women use certain products.
Karen Panetta, dean of graduate engineering at Tufts University, said impediments to women in engineering began in a persistent myth: that women are less qualified than men in math and science.
Assigned gender roles in childhood also are blamed, with boys pointed to careers in architecture and engineering and girls to grade-school teaching and home economics.
Women have made gains in law and medicine and within management ranks, according to a study by the American Association of University Women. But it quoted an academic study that said engineering is seen as the “most sex-segregated nonmilitary profession in the world.”
The number of women in engineering schools depends on the branch of engineering—mechanical, civil, electrical—and other factors. Generally, it ranges from about one-fifth of all students to one-half.
Daniel Burkey, associate dean for undergraduate education at UConn’s Engineering School, attributed a doubling of women at the university to about 26 percent in 15 years, to “a lot of targeted outreach.”
He and others say women who enter the field often choose biomedical and environmental engineering because the work offers the chance to improve human health and the environment.
“There’s a more obvious connection to the social good,” he said.
Undermining efforts to recruit women is an exodus by many who grow frustrated at workplace teamwork dominated by men, according to a 2016 academic study. Men also are paid more than women, said Susan Silbey, a sociology and anthropology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a co-author of the study.
Companies are increasingly turning to women to design and build products primarily used by women, such as minivans, cosmetics and even diapers with indicator stripes sporting different colors that indicate changing time, said Panetta, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
Danielle DelPiano, a freshman studying chemical engineering at the School of Engineering at UConn, said she intends to become a cosmetic engineer. “Science and makeup: my two favorite things,” she said.
DelPiano and three other UConn students were working as a team among a few dozen others designing water filters, wind turbines and space suits in a recent engineering class at the Storrs campus.
William Day, a freshman from Tolland studying chemical engineering, was the only man in the four-student team. “I’m cool with that,” he said.
In Connecticut, hiring more engineers is driven by the need to fill jobs at the state’s three defense conglomerates, which are benefiting from a manufacturing boom, and the state’s thousands of small machine shops and family-owned businesses that are suppliers to larger manufacturers.
Jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., is working through a backlog of 8,000 commercial jet engines and also is building engines for the Joint Strike Fighter. Sikorsky, the Lockheed Martin Corp. helicopter manufacturer, is preparing to build 200 U.S. Navy helicopters in Connecticut until at least 2032.
And Electric Boat, a unit of General Dynamics Corp., expects to build 55 submarines over the next 20 years in response to shifting U.S. military strategy.
“There’s a very aggressive push to hire more women for engineering as well as the whole manufacturing system,” said Frank Gulluni, director of advanced manufacturing technology at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield.
Recruiting more women is a struggle. Only about 30 of Asnuntuck’s 300 students in machining, welding and similar courses are women, he said. “We are pushing and pushing parents and educators,” Gulluni said.
Tara St-Pierre, senior director of human resources for talent at Pratt & Whitney, said the East Hartford manufacturer relies on an early career recruiting program, career fairs and trade organizations.
The UConn School of Engineering is “typically a place where we go to recruit,” though Pratt & Whitney also works with Penn State, Virginia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Georgia Tech, she said.
“We’re doing a lot of hiring so we have to cast the widest net obviously,” St-Pierre said.
She said Pratt & Whitney employs nearly 100 engineers identifying themselves as UConn graduates, but the number is probably higher.
Silbey, of MIT, offered a simple reason why universities and employers are doing more to recruit women as engineers.
“What’s driving it is the embarrassment that it has the lowest proportion of women in all the professions,” she said.