From Chem Lab to Corporate Office: One Woman’s Journey Through Her Manufacturing Career
Young women make up over 50% of the workforce in the USA, but only 23% of the manufacturing workforce. With the widening skills gap between retiring employees and newcomers in manufacturing, more women need to be inspired to take advantage of the growing opportunities in our world’s manufacturing industries.
My road to success has not always been easy. But I’ve been presented many great opportunities since I stepped through the doors of manufacturing.
Some of the things I’ve learned:
- Know yourself, including your flaws.
- Be open to different approaches.
- Don’t see yourself as a woman in a man’s world. See the world as everyone’s, with more opportunities than barriers.
I hope my story will inspire women to become part of the Manufacturing Industry, and convince them this industry offers terrific opportunities to fast track into a successful career.
My Path Became Crystal Clear
Eighth grade chemistry was a defining moment in my life. I realized I wanted to be a chemist after I was chosen to participate in an extracurricular math/science program that involved growing crystals. Crystals were fascinating, and I loved the idea of creating something new out of the ordinary. However, by the time high school graduation came around, I knew I did not want to be a “glass tower researcher” (as I called it). Instead I wanted to create useful items that could change people’s lifestyles, things that were interesting and fun, and could be achieved in two years, not 10.
This vision became my beacon. While studying chemistry in college, I spent the summers working at the Virginia Chemical and Allied Chemical plants. I learned manufacturing engineers made very good salaries. That’s when I decided to combine my chemistry degree with a master’s in chemical engineering, and never looked back. After college, I was hired by the Allied Chemical (now Honeywell) RD&E department, located at the company’s fibers plant. At the plant I was the only female engineer and one of the youngest in the group.
Something to Laugh About
Was it difficult? Yes. But I was prepared two ways: first, by all those math and engineering classes; second, and surprisingly, by a good sense of humor. I learned very quickly that laughter was the best connector between people and it immediately removed any differences between us. If the plant guys teased me about my bright nail polish, I put a bottle of polish on each of their desks. At first they gave me a hard time about my choice of brightly colored labels for lab samples. But soon they used that distinction as a way to protect my samples – “If it’s lime green or hot pink, it must be Colleen’s … save them for her”.
I have a big, memorable laugh and have been told over the years it might be better to tone it down in a corporate setting. Perhaps that’s true.
But I also know my laugh has acted as a bridge to great relations with:
- RD&E Engineers
- Lab Techs — who taught me to use hairspray or acetone to take out ink stains in clothes
- Plant Engineers — who supposedly were to be enemies to RD&E engineers, but I ignored all that
- Sales Guys — who allowed me to join them on customer visits when new products were launched
- Union Workers — I never had a grievance filed against me in 18 years, and I used tools, created packages, and did all sorts of things that supposedly were only allowed to be done by union people
I find manufacturing people are like a community, in every location I’ve visited. There is a great sense of pride of creation – whether you’re creating the fibers for airbags, the clarifier for beer, the polisher for toothpaste, the 10-year coating for power generation tubes, or the tools to machine a car engine.
Land of Opportunity
Since there weren’t many female engineers, I was noticed, and people in the plants and offices got to know me quickly. I’ve learned if you want to grow in your career, you have to be noticed. There are all kinds of job opportunities in manufacturing. I have done a good percentage of them, and hope to try a few more. Manufacturing is never boring; I actually find it fun.
In my opinion manufacturing offers the best job diversity for women and the most opportunities to move beyond the wage discrimination women experience in other fields. The “glass ceiling” for women has been moved up to about the C-suite level in the manufacturing industry. That’s still a frustration for women pursuing executive careers, but it is a higher level than in some industries.
Manufacturing is clean and involves mostly blue tech versus blue collar. The industry has cleaned up its environmental mistakes and:
- Leaves the world much cleaner than when it started.
- Uses power efficiently.
- Offers high paying jobs in many communities.
- Gives back to those communities through donations and by creating parks and community improvements.
Most importantly, I feel my job makes a difference, not just in this industry but in the world at large. I truly believe that working in manufacturing is one of the very best career moves a person can make. It is especially great for women!
To change perceptions of the manufacturing industry, and create new opportunities for women in the sector, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Production (STEP) Ahead Initiative was established by the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte, University of Phoenix, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Kennametal STEP Award Winners Include: Colleen Cordova, Martina Igel, and Helen Patricia. With 30+ years of experience in the Manufacturing Industry, Helen Patricia has a story of her own to tell — catch it here.