Erika Cuellar Finds Happiness in Manufacturing

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Less than a year after earning a Machine Technician Level II certificate from Housatonic Community College, Erika Cuellar happily declares, “I live, breathe, and die manufacturing.”

Cuellar is so positive about the advanced manufacturing program at Housatonic, she has persuaded her sister to enroll in it. Cuellar’s husband was the first in the family to go through the accelerated nine-month certificate program. He is now a manufacturing engineer who specializes in making prototypes. “You leave that program, and you have a career,” she said.

Erika Cuellar demonstrated her manufacturing skills at the 2019 ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference.

Erika Cuellar demonstrated her manufacturing skills at the 2019 ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference.

There’s wonder in her voice as the 23-year-old Cuellar talks about the transformation of metal that she participates in as CNC machinist specializing in operating multi-axis equipment.

“You see this raw piece of stock that’s dirty and grimy, and you see it turn into a beautiful part that goes into a helicopter or a jet engine. It’s very exciting,” she said. For her part of the excitement is knowing that she can only cut the metal once, and then the satisfaction of doing it well.

“I don’t get to see these parts work because I can’t jump into a helicopter, but sometimes they will bring in pictures. We’ll get to a least know where the part is going … you know it’s going to a gear box, and you are like ‘Wow, I just made a part for a gear box.’ You feel successful,” she said.

Attention to Detail & Drive Impresses Employer

Cuellar’s  “attention to detail, and drive” led to her being selected to operate a new $200,000 dual-spindle, live-tooling machine, according to Rory Miller, a mechanical engineer and the vice president of McMellon Bros. in Stratford, Connecticut.

When the new equipment arrived in December 2019, Cuellar was one of the first employees to run it. She had been at the company only three months, but at that point had already worked her way up from the older equipment that novice machinists are initially assigned to run at the 40-person, family-owned company. “As they learn, we expect bumps,” Miller said, explaining the older equipment can absorb the bumps.

Immediately after graduating from Housatonic in May 2019, Cuellar worked at a semiconductor company. She sought a job a McMellon after deciding she prefers to work with metal rather than glass.

“I think McMellon gave me an opportunity to shine, and I believe they saw something in me and they gave me the right tools. I think I’ve grown very far since I started with them,” Cuellar said, adding she appreciates the trust her McMellon bosses have shown in her.

“Now I get to set the machine up and prove out the program. If there is something wrong with the part, I have to figure it out. Now I have people I can ask questions to and get guidance. But they gave me the baton and told me to run with it. I feel like I’ve run,” she said.

Miller calls Cuellar’s attitude “phenomenal.” He’s impressed that she seems always motivated to do more. “Some people think a job is a job. She comes in here and she’s cheerful, she’s happy to be here. She’s a happy person. So she had great attitude, great drive, and she pays attention—and those three things make a great employee,” he said.

Advanced Manufacturing Boot Camp Provides Women with Free Introduction to Manufacturing

Cuellar’s enthusiasm persuaded her sister, Kristina Latorre to enroll in the Housatonic advanced manufacturing program that uses curriculum developed by the Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing, a center funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program and based at the Connecticut College of Technology.

This week Latorre begins the free, three-week Advanced Manufacturing Boot Camp that Housatonic uses to introduce women to foundational manufacturing skills. The camp is supported in part by a grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.  

It’s the same program that Cuellar participated in 2018, before enrolling in the certificate program. At the time she was frustrated in her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in sociology and wearying of the low wages she earned as a seafood restaurant manager.

“I was passionate about school,” she said. But when budget cuts eliminated her grants, she couldn’t afford the tuition at the private university she was attending. Unfortunately, she learned after enrolling in a public university that it would accept only a fraction the credits she had earned during two years at the private university. Cuellar’s dad is a commercial painter and wanted his children to be professionals, but the cost of practically starting her degree over deflated her aspiration to become a sociology professor.

Instead Cuellar thought about how she enjoyed working with her hands and the upward trajectory of her husband’s manufacturing career and signed up for the three-week Boot Camp. “I loved it,” she said of the introduction to manual tools and manufacturing equipment it provided.  

Cuellar found the accelerated certificate program challenging—math at times brought her to tears—but she persevered with mentoring from her husband, Ulises Cuellar, and Housatonic manufacturing instructors George and Adam Scobie, who are father and son.  

Manufacturing Fuels Cuellar’s Future Plans

“I’m glad I made my decision because I really enjoy life now. I have a great job. If I want overtime I can work it. But if I want to work 5 to 2, I can because I have a flex schedule. So as long as I put in my 40 hours a week, my bosses are very happy with me,” she said.  

The higher wages she earns in manufacturing are contributing to her happiness. “We just did our taxes and between my husband and I, we made a little over $100,000,” she said. That’s nearly three times as much as the couple earned when they both worked at the restaurant just a few years ago.

“Yes, manufacturing has definitely changed our lives,” she said. They plan to buy a house in 2020 and are looking for one with a garage large enough to hold the manufacturing equipment they hope to use to start their own businesses. They already own a lathe and 3-D printer, and soon hope to purchase a milling machine.

“Eventually I’d like to have a little family and have all my kids be little machinists,” Cuellar said.

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