Meet five women who are helping to shape 21st-century manufacturing and reboot the US economy, while enjoying exciting careers along the way
Those who predicted the death of US manufacturing might be in for a surprise. “American manufacturing is roaring back, adding more than 750,000 jobs since the start of the recovery,” says US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. “These are good jobs that help workers and families punch their ticket to the middle class.”
Although the country experienced a decade of decline in manufacturing, forces are now at work to revamp it. “To really innovate—to come up with new products and design—you need not just the R&D but also the production capacity here,” says Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute. “We have a recognition by leaders—from the C-suite to Main Street, and from the nation’s capitol to the mayors’ offices—that manufacturing is essential to this nation.”
While women make up less than a quarter of the manufacturing labor force, career opportunities are ripe. And much as it did during the wartime era of Rosie the Riveter, the federal government is making efforts to attract and train a new—and diverse—manufacturing workforce.
“We recently launched a $100 million grant competition to transform apprenticeships for the 21st century,” says Secretary Perez. “The goal of this initiative is to expand apprenticeship programs into new and emerging industries like advanced manufacturing, and to increase apprenticeship opportunities for women and other historically underrepresented populations.”
Meanwhile, the Manufacturing Institute launched its Step Ahead initiative in 2012, to expose young women to modern manufacturing careers, help them develop needed skills, and introduce them to role models. “In order for a young person to see themselves in manufacturing, she has to hear the story of somebody who’s done that,” McNelly says. “We have a national partnership with the National Girls Collaborative that’s about mentoring young girls who are interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields.”
A Manufacturing Institute survey of women in manufacturing found that more than 75 percent say their career is interesting and rewarding, citing high compensation and opportunities for challenging assignments as the top benefits. “Manufacturing creates lifesaving medicines and machines that do brain scans, and manufacturing makes cars safer,” McNelly says. “I’m so proud of the people who make things in this country, and the impact that manufacturing has on communities and the nation’s competitiveness.”
Following are the stories of five women in manufacturing who are building great products while enjoying exciting careers.
Scientist on a Mission
Sailaja Bhaskar, executive director, clinical research • Noven Pharmaceuticals
Methodical and detail oriented, Sailaja Bhaskar is just the type of person most patients would want developing and testing new medications. A seasoned clinical researcher, she leads a team of 13—including 9 women—who conduct clinical development at Noven Pharmaceuticals.
Bhaskar certainly beat the odds to get to where she is today. Having grown up in a traditional community in India, most of the girls in her high school were already brides. But at home, she and her sisters were encouraged to follow their dreams, wherever they might lead. “My mom taught us that you can set a goal and get it done,” she says. “My grandmother, an uneducated woman, told us that, as women, we should always be financially independent. So when my dad asked what I wanted to do, I said, ‘I want to be a scientist. I want to see the world and be a meaningful part of society.’”
After completing her undergraduate pharmacy degree, she hopped on a plane to the United States, having earned a full scholarship for graduate study at Temple University. “I didn’t know a single person in Philadelphia,” she remembers. “And I had to relearn all of undergrad pharmacy, because pharmacy [in the United States] has more pharmacology than in India. I would sit in undergrad classes to gather this knowledge.” Those extra hours paid off, launching Bhaskar into a career she finds both challenging and meaningful.
“Noven’s therapeutic focus is women’s health, and we want to make a difference in women’s health through our products,” says Bhaskar. “Part of my mandate is to make sure our drugs are safe and effective, and I take this responsibility very seriously.”
While her work is rigorously scientific, it’s also personal. “I’m a breast cancer survivor,” she says. “Women who are breast cancer survivors can suffer from menopausal VMS [vasomotor menopausal symptoms, or “hot flashes”], but the only drug approved for VMS was a hormone. But if a woman cannot take a hormone because she’s a breast cancer survivor, shouldn’t she have a choice? When I started at Noven, they were working on a nonhormonal product [Brisdelle®]. For the past eight years, I put a lot of heart and soul into working on this nonhormonal option, so much so that my son called Brisdelle his sibling.” The breakthrough drug—now on the market—is the only FDA-approved non-hormonal medication for VMS.
In her downtime, Bhaskar mentors young people—especially girls—hoping that some will become scientists and reap the plentiful rewards.
“I find this field extremely interesting and satisfying,” she says. “It’s almost mathematical. You can systematically progress through drug development and come to an end where you can say whether the drug is speaking for itself or not.”
Gabriela Beasley, senior production manager • Paramount Citrus
When the owner of Paramount Citrus took a tour of the company’s sprawling state-of-the-art plant—designed to process its Wonderful™ Halos™ Mandarins—he was introduced to production manager Gabriela Beasley, who had helped build the facility from the dirt up. Upon meeting her, he said, “Oh, you’re a woman.”
It was a natural reaction, considering there are few female faces in the industry, and fewer still in management. “This plant is unique, because the main operations departments are driven by three women,” says Beasley, who’s in charge of the packaging area, where she oversees 16 production lines with a team of more than 500 people. “If you have the skills and the capability, the company supports you. It’s a seasonal business, so from October to May, we’re at full capacity. We harvest the mandarins, cut them, and ship them. We work long hours, but we have a friendly environment where people are happy and results-driven.”
Beasley says building the plant wasn’t without its challenges. Her male colleagues—many mechanical and electrical engineers—had technical expertise that she didn’t. “But I wouldn’t let that get to me,” she says. “If I don’t know something, I don’t mind asking as many questions as I need to.”
She enjoys busting out of her comfort zone, something she started doing early in her career. Raised in Mexico, by electrical engineer parents, she attended Tecnológico de Monterrey and chose classes taught by international professors in English, to prepare herself to work abroad.
She initially worked for global companies in Mexico, including German-based DHL, which asked her to relocate to Santiago, Chile, for three years. “It was a good experience, to become more independent,” she says. “My career was always oriented to project management and continuous improvement, and that gave me a lot of knowledge of how to run production, which is something that I started to do when I moved [to the United States].”
At Paramount, she started as a continuous improvement manager and has enjoyed accelerated growth. “I learned a lot about the overall process and the machines functionality. I had an active role on plant staffing processes and developed a robust training program that includes not only theory but practice,” she says. “About 60 to 70 percent of the hourly employees at the plant are Hispanic, and I can communicate effectively across different levels in the organization in English and Spanish.”
As an eager 20-something in Mexico, she recalls a boss telling her that she wasn’t ready for management. “Part of me was thinking, ‘I know I can do better, I need to prove myself,’” she says. “Being able to succeed in the First World economy is a big accomplishment. We started at a couple of production lines, and now we’re at full capacity. I wake up, and I’m excited to come to work.”
Danica Chin, process engineer • Bayer MaterialScience
When Danica Chin was a kid, she slid a floppy disk into the wrong port of her family’s home computer—and it got jammed. “My mom said, ‘You’d better get it out, because that’s all you’ve got,’” she remembers. “Growing up, I loved taking things apart, so I got very good at making sure I put everything back the way it was supposed to be.”
Years later, working as an intern at Bayer MaterialScience—a leading innovator of high-tech polymers—Chin once again found herself with a puzzle to solve. “I had to create piping and instrumentation diagrams for our whole plant,” she says. “I didn’t know how to do it, so I started by doing diagrams for small pieces of equipment and eventually did all of the production lines. I’m the expert now. When something’s thrown at me, I know it’s not always as bad as it seems.”
Today, as a process engineer, Chin oversees two production lines that create polycarbonate sheet used to make everything from basketball backboards to motorcycle windshields to snowmobile body kits. “I work with our maintenance department to make sure that everything’s running the best that it can be,” she says. “I like to sit next to the operators and pick their brains. Some have been here for 30 or 40 years, so they know a lot more than I do.” Bayer MaterialScience just launched a “lean manufacturing” push at the plant, so Chin is also evaluating various aspects of the system for possible improvements.
As a student, Chin got plenty of encouragement, but she also had detractors. “A college professor told me that I wouldn’t make it in engineering, especially manufacturing,” she recalls. “If you are a female engineer, people will doubt your abilities. But if you stay focused and work hard, you’ll get there.”
She’s in a happy spot, because she has a special affection for manufacturing. “My father was a production worker at a manufacturing plant,” she says. “That’s what kept my family going for so many years, and it’s what got me through college. Manufacturing is the foundation for so many families, so continuing to grow manufacturing and keep [production] in the United States is important to me.”
That’s one reason she loves getting young people, especially girls, excited about science and engineering. She helped launched the University of Connecticut chapter of Engineering Ambassadors, which creates and supports in-class activities, after-school programs and camps to educate children and their families about STEM careers. She’ll also be working with the Flying Cloud Institute [a program that offers schoolchildren STEM instruction]. As she says, “Having a girl know that engineering is an option—because she knows that you did it—is important to me.”
Katie Davis, director of engineering, enterprise engineering • Ingersoll Rand
As director of engineering for a global manufacturer, Katie Davis has a healthy to-do list. She spearheads process and strategy development for engineers throughout Ingersoll Rand, is responsible for the company’s engineering codes, and even heads a team that works with IT on engineering-related issues.
Her interest in building things started early. “I helped my dad build our playhouse, and if he had to fix something around the house, I’d help,” she says. For high school, she attended an engineering and robotics magnet academy, where she learned about robotics, lasers, and computer-aided drafting.
Davis then headed to Mercer University in Georgia, whose program offers both engineering theory and hands-on learning. “I learned how to design my own parts, prototype them, and machine them,” she says. “I learned how to weld using every welding method. If I’m going to design a pipe that has to be welded in certain places, I understand what I’m asking the welder to do.”
That grounding served Davis well at her first job, at Bechtel, working on nuclear weapons system design. Then, while with the Air Force, she investigated an accident that nearly caused loss of life—a pivotal experience for her. The failure resulted from a contractor’s substandard engineering and poor manufacturing. Davis knew then that she wanted to participate in the manufacturing process, to help ensure quality and safety.
At Ingersoll Rand, she has hopped around. “I started as a quality engineer and moved into product engineering, and then I wanted to understand the other functions,” Davis says. “I picked the one that had given me the most challenges: IT. I wanted to understand things from their side, so I could better help IT as an engineer.”
Seeing the business from various perspectives has made her a better leader, as director of engineering. Still, she felt she had to head back to school. “Ingersoll Rand has a program with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, and getting my MBA was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says. “I really needed the business acumen side to understand finance and strategy, and the MBA helped me get that foundation to apply on my job every day.”
Davis says being an engineer in manufacturing puts you on the cutting edge and allows you to help deliver the growth. And she’s enjoyed other—sometimes unexpected—perks as well. “My son and daughter can recognize our products on a rooftop or driving down the road,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, my gosh! It’s Ingersoll Rand! Mom, did you design that?’ That always makes me proud.”
Olga Ortiz, machine operator and test engineer • Click Bond Inc.
As a test engineer for Click Bond, a leader in fastening technology, Olga Ortiz checks the quality of parts used in everything from Navy aircraft to Lamborghinis. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” she says. “That’s why I want to be focused on what I’m doing. I want to make sure that all of the parts are right—100 percent quality.”
Ortiz, who arrived from Mexico with her husband nearly 20 years ago, only expected to be in the United States for a couple of weeks. But her husband was offered a job in Carson City, Nevada, so Ortiz took various jobs as she worked on polishing her English. Then, eager to put her engineering degree to use, she asked a friend who worked at Click Bond to recommend her for a job. She was hired and became the company’s first female machine operator, fashioning bars of metal into various parts. “Around me, there were only men, but I didn’t worry about it,” she says. “I worried about the process. I was interested in every single part.”
Having mastered that job, she asked to be promoted to test engineer. Being proactive paid off once again. “I have more responsibility now,” she says. “If you want to be successful, this company gives you the opportunity.”
To ensure that others have similar opportunities, she traveled to Washington, DC, with coworkers and others for the Annual Manufacturing Summit last summer, where she had a heartfelt talk with then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I’m from Mexico, and I have friends from China, Japan, Nicaragua, and different parts of the world,” she says. “We have to follow the rules, but sometimes people who are from very poor countries and are working hard need the opportunity to be legal in this country.” Just one week later, the Senate passed immigration reform.
Ortiz also works with Latino families in her local community to lower the high school dropout rate. “We try to help parents help their children by saying, ‘You have to continue to study to have a career,’” she says. “I speak with teenagers and say, ‘Come on, you can do it. This country gives you a lot of opportunities. Take advantage of that.’” DW