Women are increasingly present in San Antonio’s manufacturing industry


When Mary Batch entered manufacturing 40 years ago, she was a rarity on an American production line. Today, as a human resources manager at Toyota’s San Antonio plant, she says women are a growing part of the solution to the labor shortage in manufacturing.

But, as with almost every aspect of business, COVID-19 has complicated the equation.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 has forced women out of jobs at a higher rate than men, and more women now say they plan to leave the workforce than before the pandemic. But a record number of vacancies in the manufacturing sector could provide opportunities for women as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic shock.

The US job market is always on the move. More American workers quit their jobs in September – 4.4 million – than in any month on record. And after the pandemic forced millions out of their jobs and forced schools to close for nearly a year and a half, mothers increasingly said they do not plan to return to work post-pandemic. Dads surveyed said their employment status is unlikely to change, according to a Pew Research poll.

Meanwhile, there have been more job openings this year across the country than in any year on record. There have been around 900,000 jobs open since July in the US manufacturing industry – work that typically pays more than $15 an hour.

Prior to this year, there were only a few months on record that the US manufacturing industry had even 500,000 job openings, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We’re having trouble finding employees,” Batch said.

Student Pipeline

She remembers working on C-130 transport planes for Lockheed-Martin in California in the 1980s, when she had only one colleague. Today, about 10 percent of the maintenance workers at Toyota’s South Side plant, where it makes Tacoma and Tundra pickups, are women, she said.

“We really didn’t have any opportunities back then,” Batch said of women in manufacturing. “We weren’t even allowed to go shopping in high school.”

But Toyota has increasingly hired women through the Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, a two-year apprenticeship in which students attend classes two days a week at St. Philips College and spend the other three days working with a local manufacturing company.

Ten San Antonio companies hire students from the AMT program, including CPS Energy, Caterpillar and Toyota.

Edelmira Valenciana, 21, a maintenance technician at the Toyota factory, said she had always been interested in robotics growing up.

During her freshman year in high school, she decided to go to the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Academy which is part of Alamo Academies. She went to class at St. Phillips in the morning and returned to Lanier High School in the afternoon.

At the end of her senior year, Valenciana landed an internship at Toyota and joined the two-year AMT program, where she began working at the South Side plant.

“It was really intimidating,” Valenciana said of starting work at the factory. “You don’t really hear ‘Oh, my sister works at Toyota, or my mom.'”

“You make yourself comfortable”

Today, a normal day, Valenciana reads the gauges and makes sure everything around the production line is ready to go. If it’s not working properly, it’s up to her to fix the problem before the start of the next shift.

After the two-year program, Valenciana was hired full-time at Toyota last fall.

“Once you’re there for a while, you feel comfortable and you know how to fix it yourself,” she said.

Eva Rivera, 20, is part of Toyota’s projects team, where she works to improve ground equipment and processes to speed up production. She also helps teach students in Toyota’s AMT program, which she graduated from earlier this year.

“I like the idea of ​​being constantly challenged, because it’s something new every day,” Rivera said. “It’s not the same thing that breaks, and it doesn’t break for the same reasons.”

She was in the STEM program at Lee High School and heard she could get a paid internship through the ATMA program with Alamo Academies.

“I thought I wanted to go to electrical or mechanical engineering school,” Rivera said. But when she saw the variety of projects she could work on at the factory, she changed her mind.

“It’s not just electrical or mechanical, or you just focus on one thing. It’s a lot of other areas,” she says.

A different path

Bianca Rhodes, 63, has taken a different path, although she is now trying to lure other women into manufacturing jobs.

Rhodes is CEO of Knight Aerospace, a 65-employee manufacturer based in Port San Antonio. The company builds high-tech medical modules for use on cargo aircraft.

The Rio Grande Valley native began her career as a commercial banker and worked as a chief financial officer for three companies in the 1990s, including San Antonio-based Kinetic Concepts Inc..

The corporate culture at the time was not family friendly — or working mothers, she said.

“When I had kids, I can’t remember a company I knew that had paternity leave,” said Rhodes, a mother of three. “When I first met KCI, the only woman they ever had was the receptionist.”

Since becoming Knight’s chief executive in 2017, Rhodes has increased the workforce to 25% women. And while they remain underrepresented in manufacturing, Rhodes said she’s looking to bring in more women — and different perspectives.

“I want more women, because diversity of thought is so precious,” she said. “If you have more perspectives, you will have a more robust solution. I’m still looking for that.



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