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Diva Tech connects high school girls with technical education, great careers

Female students performing an oil chang.

(3/12/15 BusinessNorth by Ron Brochu)

SUPERIOR– With the number of skilled trade and technical workers insufficient to meet demand, new and innovative efforts are being made to market those careers to young persons.

Now in its second year regionally, the Diva Tech program is unique because it seeks to inform girls about professions that are heavily dominated by men. In February, the program taught girls in Grades 8-12 about jobs that are being called “gold collar careers” because of their good pay and opportunities for advancement. Held last year at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical Institute in Ashland, the program this year was hosted by WITC’s Superior campus. Students from South Shore High School in Port Wing, Northwestern High in Maple and Northwood High near Minong attended and all were fitted with pink hard hats.

“There are 357,000 welders in the United States today. Only 2 to 4 percent of those jobs are held by women. There are about 500,000 jobs as auto mechanics in this country. Only 2 percent are held by women,” Bonny Copenhaver, WITC campus administrator, told participants Feb. 11. “One of the things they never told me when I was growing up is that women can do these jobs. They can be welders, auto mechanics and mechanical engineers. It takes things like fine motor skills and a good eye, and it takes creativity – it takes all of the things that we possess as women.”

The goal is to convince girls to consider technical and trade education when they approach high school graduation, said Jena Vogtman, WITC marketing and public relations director.

“We’re introducing what these careers are and hoping they will include them in their career options,” Vogtman said. “These are not the dirty jobs they used to be. This event gives them the chance to see their options hands on.”

In the past, many high schools gave students a taste of the industrial arts in “shop class.” Offering those programs is costly, said industrial arts instructor David Johnson of South Shore High school.

“I know what a shop needs to have, and it’s expensive stuff,” he said. In recent years, Johnson added, many of the machines that were used for decades no longer could be used to provide relevant education. They needed to be replaced by computer-controlled versions.

“CNC machines and plasma tables are very expensive” for school districts, he explained, although a growing number of software developers and equipment makers are providing education discounts.

While at WITC, the participants were taken into a variety of modern classroom settings, including a motor vehicle repair shop, welding lab, hydraulics training room and an area where students learn how a variety of carbon and fiberglass materials are made into high-strength composite aircraft structural parts.

Some careers demand more than a single trade skill, explained Steve Miller, WITC industrial maintenance technician instructor, who lamented that only two women have graduated from his program during the past 20 years.

“They’re needed in the classroom and on the job,” said Miller, whose graduates are in high demand by mining and paper companies. “Women are at the top of the game. They excel,” he said.

In the Diva Tech program, most of the demonstrations are given by WITC students, who are much closer in age to the high school participants they are hoping to reach. Receiving a hands-on demonstration helps students to understand how courses such as math, algebra and geometry are used in a work setting, Johnson said.

Combining classroom knowledge with tools of the trade can produce rewarding results for students who complete two-year college courses, said WITC composites instructor Dave Crockett.

“Our whole graduating class will have jobs,” he said of those who complete the new program, which was created to provide skilled workers for Kestrel Aircraft in Superior and Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth.

Participants in the 2015 Diva Tech concluded their experience by taking tours at three Superior firms – Exodus Machines, Charter NEX Films and Lake Assault Boats.

“We had extremely positive feedback last year from the schools and girls, so we wanted to offer the program again,” said Suzannah Crandall of Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program (NWCEP), event co-sponsor. “Businesses love having the kids come in. They like to spread the word that jobs are available and their door is open.”