Editor’s note: I was invited by my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology to attend the recent OK-WISE conference in Tulsa, where I sat in on a couple of panel discussions. The topic of internships as a way to gain experience and an entry into the Aerospace industry (and others!) caught my attention. So, I filed this report.
TULSA – Heather McDowell shared some bleak industry employment numbers as moderator during a panel discussion entitled Women Impacting Aerospace at the recent 2019 OK-WISE conference at the Hyatt Regency Tulsa.
The conference focused on helping women advance their careers in STEM fields such as cybersecurity, manufacturing, technology and economic empowerment.
“We see statistics all the time about STEM industry and how women are under represented in this field,” said McDowell, associate director of Programs at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST).
“Overall, about 25 percent of our workforce are women, but particularly in aerospace only about 10 percent of the workforce are women,” she said. “How can we get more women involved in aerospace?”
The OK-WISE – Women Impacting STEM & Entrepreneurship – conference was produced by the Oklahoma Catalyst Programs that is headquartered at the Tom Love Innovation Hub at the University of Oklahoma. Organizers sought to inspire and encourage an audience of about 300 women aspiring to STEM careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or entrepreneurship.
So, how did the panel of female aerospace professionals answer McDowell’s questions of bringing more women into the industry?
Internships can be an important component to bringing more women into aerospace – and any STEM profession — panelists suggested.
And that can begin with high school, students, said Sara Shmalo, material and process engineer at Spirit Aerosystems in Tulsa.
“One of the things that Spirit does is we partner with high schools and started bringing in high school students who have a passion for aviation,” Shmalo said. “They can watch the processes in place, and some of them have come up with great ideas that have saved time, and they are offered jobs out of high school. We train them to work there.”
Seated next to Shmalo on the panel was Brenda Rolls, Ph.D., CEO of Stillwater’s Frontier Electronic Systems, a company that manufactures sophisticated electronic components for advanced military aircraft and for the U.S. space industry. Frontier employs more than 50 engineers among its workforce of about 120 people.
Potential interns are recruited and evaluated for the positions as if they were being hired for full-time Frontier Electronic positions, Rolls said.
“We try to give the interns real hands-on experience of what it would be like to work in an aerospace company like ours,” Rolls said. “We have had a number of female interns, and one of the great things that happens is there have been a number of interns who have stayed with us after they graduated. So, we have three women that have continued with us as full-time employees, and we have a number of men.”
OCAST manages a statewide cost-share Intern Partnership program that places college students in real world work environments like Frontier Electronic Systems across Oklahoma.
“I think Oklahoma is trying really, really hard to improve the hands-on learning opportunities for students at all levels,” Rolls said.
Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).