Phoenix engineers show optimism for rising Hispanic population
By Chris Caraveo
December 1, 2015
Maira Garcia, Rafael Haro and Erick Leon are Hispanic engineers, coming from different family and educational backgrounds. Yet all three have found their way in a profession that is short in the number of Hispanic engineers and is struggling to fill the void left by retired engineers.
According to the 2011 American Community Survey, 7 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce were Hispanic, despite being 15 percent of the total working population.
Garcia, Haro and Leon express hope for the future of Hispanic people in the profession. They shared with the Public Insight Network Bureau the stories of their paths in the field, and what aspiring students and children should consider when thinking about career possibilities.
Garcia barely registered what engineering was as a child, let alone that it existed. All she knew was she liked planes.
When it came to finding a career path, there were few options Garcia had set for herself.
Garcia attributes her start in engineering to a recruiter from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. Her high school in west Phoenix held a college fair, where the Embry recruiter introduced Garcia to aerospace engineering.
“He asked me, ‘Oh do you like airplanes? Do you like math?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, they’re cool. Why? What do they have to do in common with each other?’ And so he introduced aerospace engineering to me and I was like ‘Ah, that’s awesome, I totally want to do that.’”
Without that recruiter’s help, Garcia would have been in the dark about the profession.
“And that’s why I do so much outreach and mentoring, because if I didn’t know what an engineer did, a lot of people probably don’t know,” she said.
Now, Garcia works as a systems engineer at Honeywell and is the vice president of outreach for the Phoenix chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. The local organization partners with Arizona State University to provide STEM activities for K-12 Hispanic students in an effort to build interest in those fields.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, 9.3 percent of people earning a bachelor’s in engineering in 2013 were Hispanic, below whites and Asian Americans, despite being the second most populous racial or ethnic group in the nation.
Rafael Haro invested in engineering opportunities while going to Nogales High School near the Mexican border, joining the Society of Automotive Engineers. But he said the fact that his parents didn’t have the educational background that parents of other students in the club possessed presented a challenge as he entered college.
“I just felt that I wasn’t up to the standards,” Haro said. “And it was maybe more difficult for me to get to where everyone was but I think that gave me a momentum to keep trying and be at the level or better.”
Thinking back, Haro said being different as a Hispanic student was more of a strength than a weakness. Now, Haro is a recent University of Arizona graduate, working for General Motors in Chandler.
Erick Leon had some of the same troubles that Haro had concerning family education. Neither of his parents earned a college degree until Leon was already born. His father received a technical degree to work on planes.
Wanting to be a pilot, he joined Math Engineering Science Achievement in middle school, working in teams to plan, build and test what they built.
“I stuck (it) out with that club from 6th grade all the way through high school. It kind of changed my mind of if I want(ed) to be a pilot,” he said. “But I wanted to better help pilots fly planes and make that easier for them. And a good way to do that was to use engineering for aircraft.”
He said that since his parents didn’t go to a four-year college, he couldn’t go to them for questions on how to manage stress and a complex workload the university threw at him.
“But thanks to a club called SHPE, I kind of found a family where the upperclassmen helped the underclassmen get to where they needed to be,” Leon said, “pointing to us the resources available to us to be successful.”
Carlos Lopez, who earned a degree in civil engineering and works for the Arizona Department of Transportation, sees his Hispanic background as a resource in itself. Lopez said using Spanish-language skills, knowing the culture of places like San Luis or Nogales, and connecting with locals will help solve problems in the civil engineering field.
“That’s a win for everybody,” Lopez said.
Despite the growing number of Hispanic people earning engineering degrees, one problem that Phoenix engineers are seeing is the retiring of older professionals with fewer people landing a job in that field.
Haro said baby-boomers retiring might be a reason for this situation. Back in 2013, T.E. “Ed” Schlesinger, then department head of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said half of the engineers in the power industry would be retiring in five years.
For Garcia and members of SHPE, talking with college students and building small cars with younger students are crucial for making students and graduates, Hispanics included, aware of the opportunities.
“For Honeywell we’ve revamped our internship program, so we’re hiring as many interns as we possibly can,” Garcia said. “And we’re hoping that they’ll like it and transition to full-time engineers.”
The gap is there, but that opens doors for many others, according to Leon.
“They’re getting to a stage where a lot of them are leaving and there’s been more younger engineers that companies need to take in,” Leon said. “And I think it’s a good opportunity for Hispanic engineers to get in and try to fill those positions.”
Christopher is a graduate student at the Cronkite School. He is pursuing a career in sports and data-driven journalism. He earned his undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. He previously interned at the El Paso Times.