For two years, Kristin Milam walked and rode a rural mail route delivering to as many as 800 addresses a day.
Good job, good benefits, she said.
But just not for her.
“My mother was a rural carrier for more than 25 years, and my grandfather delivered mail for about 30 years,” said Milam, 29, who took the postal job during a sabbatical from college to deal with career doubt. “You have to be good with numbers to work with the post office. But I wanted something more challenging than what I was doing.”
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That decision led her back to UT Arlington, which led to an internship at Airbus Helicopters in Grand Prairie during her senior year in 2012, when the company was American Eurocopter. She landed her full-time dream job at Airbus after she graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering.
She is an associate flight-test analysis engineer whose high-tech duties include analyzing vibration, performance and other factors to make sure that any equipment or system installed in a helicopter doesn’t interfere with the aircraft’s operation.
Landing the job culminated years of growing interest in math and science, reaching back to a telling moment in sixth grade when her twin sister was placed in an advanced math course while Milam was assigned to a basic course.
“That’s when it clicked in my head that I knew I didn’t want to fall behind,” said Milam, who grew up raising sheep in the Ellis County town of Maypearl.
She rededicated herself to her studies, earning her way into the advanced class by reading her class’s entire math textbook and doing the chapter lessons in a study binge over the Christmas holiday that semester.
Fired up by the challenge — and encouraged by her parents — she loaded up on all the most advanced math and science courses she could fit into her schedule.
“When it was time to choose a career for college, they said, ‘You’re really good at math. You should do something technical,’ ” she recalled.
That sparked an interest in accounting for most of her junior year in high school, because, as she explained, “I love numbers.” She came to realize, however, that she preferred the numbers of physics and engineering.
Milam’s passion for engineering took hold for good when she returned to UT Arlington for her junior year. It was evident to Alex Graves, a student at the time who worked with Milam on their senior design project.
“She had a great work ethic, very enthusiastic to learn and always one of the hardest workers,” Graves said. “When she didn’t know something, she didn’t look at it as a failure. She looked at it as a challenge to learn something new.”
“She’s all-in with anything she devotes her time to,” he added.
James Merkel, a flight-test colleague of Milam, agreed.
“It may just be a quality of this profession that attracts people like that,” Merkel said. “A lot of people in the department have the same quality, but Kristin takes that to the extreme.”
Milam’s early success comes is in a field where women are relatively scarce, both in the industry and in college programs.
Milam was among six or seven women in her aerospace class of 42 students at UT Arlington.
At Airbus, Milam is the only woman among the 12 teammates in the experimental flight test department, although a recent intern was a woman.
Nationwide, women composed 20 percent of engineering school graduates over the past two decades, yet they hold 11 percent of the engineering jobs, according to a study presented at the American Psychological Association convention in August.
“It does matter to me,” Milam said. “I wish it could be different. Overall, I think women are not encouraged to go the technical route as much as males are.”
The encouragement needs to start early, she said. “Fourth, fifth and sixth grade is kind of the critical age when they decide if they’re going to go the technical route.”
Her two sisters were set on that path, and both have became emergency room nurses. “They love their jobs,” she said.
The APA study cites other reasons for the paucity of female engineers, including sexist or misogynistic workplace environments and uncivil treatment.
“It’s something I’ve had to deal with in the past,” she said. “But it wouldn’t have dissuaded me. It’s just something you try to deal with and overcome.”
Milam said she now has the job she needed “to push myself and see what else was out there in the world.”
Airbus has already given her a taste, sending her to two assignments to Germany on at Airbus Helicopters Deutschland shortly after she was hired.
She is studying German to prepare for her goal of working and living in Germany for a few years. Then she wants to work at other Airbus operations around the world to broaden her work and cultural experience.
So the question of where she wants to be in 10 and 20 years — in terms of other positions and employers — hasn’t really occurred to her.
“I would be happy doing exactly what I’m doing now in 20 years,” she said. “Unfortunately a lot of engineering students I graduated with did not get jobs that pertain to what they learned in school.
“I’m pretty fortunate that I have a job that I love to do,” she added. “Every day I learn something different. That’s what I love. It’s never-ending learning.”