RIVER GROVE, Ill. » Forget tie-dyed shirts, lanyards and water games. At summer camp this year, Nautika Kotero, 13, learned to use a drill press, solder electrical wires and build a lamp.
Though the slim, 5-foot-5 teenager dreams of becoming a basketball star, Nautika now has a backup plan after her weeklong immersion course: a career in manufacturing.
Just over a quarter of the 11.7 million workers in manufacturing are women. But Gadget, a camp for girls in this suburb west of Chicago, is part of an effort to change that.
Although the economy is wobbling and nearly 14 million people are looking for work, some employers are still having a hard time finding skilled workers for certain positions. Manufacturers in particular complain that few applicants can operate computerized equipment, read blueprints and solve production problems. And with the baby boomers starting to retire, these and other employers worry there will be few young workers willing or able to replace them.
The Gadget camp, sponsored in part by a foundation affiliated with the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, which is providing financing to nine other camps this summer, is intended to help over the long haul in part by exposing girls to an occupation they might previously have considered unappealing, if they considered it at all.
Since the fragile recovery began, manufacturing is one of the few sectors that have added jobs. But the image of manufacturing as an occupation of the future has been tarnished by the exodus of factory jobs to foreign sites and the use of machinery to replace workers. Younger people, especially, see more alluring opportunities in digital technology, finance or health care.
"The perception is that there are no jobs in manufacturing," said Susan H. Palisano, director of education and training at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonprofit group in East Hartford, Conn., that promotes manufacturing employment and has run summer programs for middle-school students for the past three years. "It seems that everybody had an uncle or grandfather that got laid off."
Across the country, a handful of companies, nonprofit groups, public educational agencies and even science museums are trying to make manufacturing seem, well, fun. Focusing mainly on children ages 10 to 17, organizations including the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pa.; and Stihl, a maker of chain saws and other outdoor power equipment in Virginia Beach, Va., run camps that let students operate basic machinery, meet workers and make things.
Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs, the foundation that helped sponsor the Gadget camp in River Grove, has awarded $2,500 grants to 112 manufacturing-themed camps — most of them for boys and girls — around the country since 2004. "It’s not easy getting people into the career field," said Marcia Arndt, a board member of the foundation. "I think there’s a myth out there that manufacturing is dirty and undesirable, but it’s really highly technological."
Impressions also persist that manufacturing is a man’s job. Technical fields in general, and those that require scientific or mathematical backgrounds, are indeed dominated by men. Yet a Commerce Department report released early this month showed that women in such fields earn 33 percent more, on average, than women working outside of scientific and technical fields, a higher premium than men enjoy in similar occupations.
Antigone Sharris, who came up with the idea for the all-girls Gadget camp, had worked extensively in manufacturing before becoming an instructor in electronics, welding and computer-aided machinery at Triton College, a two-year public school here that provided some funding for the camp.
Sharris is a mentor to high school robotics teams and wants to encourage young women to consider a range of technically oriented careers. "Girls don’t naturally gravitate toward engineering," said Sharris, a jolly and patient instructor who interspersed practical tips on using a band saw or a drill press with casual explanations of fractions, the concept of leverage and Newton’s laws.
In a windowless classroom and shop on Triton’s scruffy campus, 16 girls ages 11 to 15 designed and constructed a cat feeder, a candy dispenser and various pieces of jewelry and music boxes, using foam board, wood, metal, fiberglass and PVC pipe.
"Not letting your children learn the hands-on component of the theory of science is killing us as a nation," Sharris said. "You have to stop giving kids books and start giving them tools."
To give the girls a concrete sense of what such skills could mean in the workplace, Sharris invited a human resources coordinator from a local manufacturer to tell them about salaries — starting in the $40,000 range and moving up to six digits, including overtime.
Several of the campers came from low-income and minority communities near the college. Only five of the 16 girls at the camp had paid the $99 fee; the rest were subsidized.
While Sharris focused mostly on basic technical skills, factory toursB aimed at introducing the girls to modern manufacturing work brought out talk that might have fitB at a nationalist rally.
During a tour of Tru-Way, which produces precision metal parts, Stan Mastalerz, the company’s president, showed the girls a tiny component used in electronic circuit boards.
Sharris jumped in. "See that?" she asked. "This is something that might be in your Game Boy that you don’t even know about. The game may be made in China, but there are pieces that are made right here in your backyard."
The reality of factory life gave a few girls pause. Visiting Tru-Way on a scorching summer afternoon, they noted the extreme heat and noise of the shop floor.
Brittany Orr, 15, who asked questions and jotted notes, said she liked the tasks that involved some thought and analysis. But "I would not want to do a job where you just do the same thing again," she said. "It seems tedious."
A tour of MSi Testing & Engineering, a small company in Melrose Park, Ill., that evaluates the strength and quality of metal materials used by manufacturers, showed that it offered more of the work she preferred.
In the end, the campers learned lessons in persistence and problem-solving as well as technical skills. When Nautika began building the lamp she had designed, she wanted to install a rotating shade.
Sharris brought out a tiny motor. "What you are trying to figure out is what to use to make your lampshade so that it will spin," she said.
Sharris rejected Nautika’s first suggestion of foam board: too heavy. Sharris recommended a simple piece of copier paper, then spied a paper plate on a table. "Humor me," she said, showing Nautika how to affix the motor to the plate with generous daubs from a glue gun.
Next came wiring a battery. To tutor Nautika in basic electronics, Sharris recruited Ariana Vargas, a 17-year-old counselor who has competed on her robotics team. Ariana demonstrated how to strip the green coating from the electrical wires with pliers. On Nautika’s first try, the whole tip broke off.
A few fumbles later, Nautika was frustrated. "I don’t know how you did it!" she said.
Ariana replied, "Practice, practice and more practice."
Finally, the coating came off, exposing bare wire. Her confidence building, Nautika stripped another wire and slid both ends through a PVC pipe and connected them to the battery.
The plate began to spin.
"Yea!" Nautika exclaimed. "I did it."