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Tuesday, April 26, 2005 | After graduating from San Diego State University in the 1970s, Valerie Houlihan served as an adjunct faculty member in the newly formed women studies program in which she taught “Socialization of Women and Women in Politics.”

Soon after, SDSU suffered budget cutbacks and Valerie was laid off. Not sure that teaching was the right career, Valerie joined the unemployment line with no clear direction. The California Employment Development Department offered to retrain Valerie (because there weren’t a lot of jobs for political science or women studies’ teachers) through the California Employment Training Act program. The available openings were in the machine shop class, and she decided to try it, although unsure of what it was.

“I actually thought it was the auto mechanics class until the second week when it became obvious that there were no cars,” Houlihan said. “I was a bit of a tomboy growing up, and was never considered to be very coordinated, much less mechanically inclined.” Despite her initial apprehension, she was intrigued.

Today, Houlihan is manager of outfit training at NASSCO where she manages a department that provides training to support and improve the skills of employees. She is also a member of Women on the Waterfront, a growing organization of about a dozen members, which I started in 2004 to provide a networking group for women.

Valerie Houlihan is one of the many San Diego women who have found a place in this traditionally male-dominated industry. W.O.W. membership includes women involved in the crane and rigging industry, a nautical bookstore and boat captain.

I am director of Coordinated Maritime Services and also manage charters and coordinate events for the Cheers Charter Boat Company. After spending many years in various careers on the waterfront, I saw the need to develop a forum for powerful women to meet and discuss important issues in San Diego County that affect the future of the entire maritime industry. W.O.W. is a group of intelligent visionaries who care about what is going on in our community and want to find and implement solutions.

Shipbuilding and ship repair are major industries in San Diego. Although the industry employs nearly 10,000 with livable wage jobs, the shipbuilder and ship repair journeyman is dwindling in numbers due to an aging workforce and competition from other manufacturing industries vying for new workers. Shipbuilding and ship operations are vital to our national defense, and good training is essential for success.

Houlihan’s training included a five-month intensive course through the Skills Center, now called the Community College Center for Education and Technology. She started her new career at a variety of companies, including Digital Machines and Cubic, and then worked her way up from lathe operator to group leader. Houlihan finally settled into a 17-year stay at General Dynamics. She moved from machinist to leadman (her favorite job title) to computer numerical control programmer to manufacturing engineer.

When General Dynamics closed the Convair division in 1995, Houlihan had some serious decisions to make. In the years just preceding the shutdown, she had been involved in some interesting projects that brought her back to her teaching roots. She wanted to integrate both careers and decided to go back to college to get a master’s degree in industrial and technical studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with an emphasis in adult education. After completing her degree, she moved back to San Diego. She worked as a consultant teaching blueprint reading and other technical courses to small- and medium-size companies, and as adjunct faculty in the machine technology program at San Diego City College.

She joined NASSCO in 1998 and moved from training specialist to manager of training and development to her new position as manager of outfit training.

“I have had a tremendous opportunity to develop innovative programs like the Waterfront Academy and initiate creative partnerships with outside training programs to meet NASSCO’s hiring needs,” she said.

Houlihan is now back working within the trades managing a new department that will provide trades training to support and improve the skills of NASSCO’s employees. Her career started in teaching, moved to manufacturing, and now combines both together.

Rosanne Bentley is director of Coordinated Maritime Services, which provides maritime career discovery education and training programs.

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