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3 Emerging Leaders on How Women Can Change the Face of Manufacturing

March 25, 2015

Meredith Kovarik of Jabil, Chelsea Sargeant of Caterpillar and Faina Sandler of Sandvik Coromant Company discuss how women can address the challenges facing U.S. manufacturing.


American manufacturing needs a makeover. It is rebuilt, and it is revitalized — strengthening its competitiveness with the help of lower energy costs, 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing technologies, as well as smart Industrial Internet and Big Data solutions that boost productivity and predict breakdowns before they occur.

Yet with success brings new challenges, such as a skills gap anticipated to grow to 2 million unfilled positions over the next decade. To fill these, the sector needs to shed its image as a male-dominated assembly line to a culturally and technologically open lab for innovation.

Because women are a critical part of the answer to filling this skills gap. Today they only comprise about a quarter of the manufacturing workforce. But attracting this untapped resource is key to future development, growth, and success.

To do this, “manufacturers need to improve the cultural perception that manufacturing is not a progressive environment,” says Sandler Sandler, global content marketing specialist at Sandvik Coromant Company.

Sandler is one of 30 women recognized as an Emerging Leader by the STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production) Ahead Awards. The Manufacturing Institute honors successful women in manufacturing, with the hope of showing young women the possibilities that a career in manufacturing has to offer.

“Manufacturers need to start early and promote programs to get engineering in front of young women,” says Chelsea Sargeant, a production supervisor at Caterpillar Inc., who is also being recognized by the STEP Ahead Awards.

Meredith Kovarik, supply chain director at Jabil, says she believes it’s “reaching a tipping point,” with an influx of young women into more senior positions. “Employers can help by reaching down beyond traditional levels in their human and talent development programs.”

In an interview, Kovarik, Sargeant and Sandler — none of whom had imagined a career in manufacturing — discuss their careers, accomplishments and thoughts on the importance of women in the industry:


Why did you choose a career in manufacturing?

Kovarik: Manufacturing is a very “real” process. To see something created from nothing is exciting. When you think about it, the act of inventorying, conceptualizing and then creating something is a uniquely human act — and manufacturing captures the essence of this. Growing up, it was always fun for me to invent and create things, so manufacturing was a natural calling.

Sandler: I never really intended to have a career in manufacturing and just stumbled into it by chance. Once I was in, though, I really liked what I saw and experienced — especially the culture of continuous improvement. The manufacturing industry is constantly changing and looking into new ways of working. I saw a lot of opportunities there for me to develop my career and be a part of that change process.

Sargeant: Initially, I did not intend to choose a career in manufacturing. I grew up with Caterpillar in my hometown, and when I graduated with an engineering degree it seemed like a natural place to apply.

I thought that I would stay on the design side, but once I got a taste of manufacturing, I could not turn back. The ability to see individual parts come in and be assembled together to make some of the largest trucks in the world is a joy every day. The direct interaction with the machines and processes provides a host of opportunities that continue to challenge me.


What is the greatest challenge you faced in your career? What has been the biggest reward/accomplishment?

Kovarik: The biggest challenge was when I started to have my own team. It’s one thing to be responsible for yourself and your own livelihood. However, when you have a team that you are trying to lead, promote and also ensure that they are empowered in their own positions, the stakes are even higher. I’ve also found that this is also the most rewarding portion of my job.

Sandler: I have a natural inclination to focus on digital solutions. However, the manufacturing industry is still very traditional at times, so it can be a challenge to get people to buy into things like social media.

I truly believe that social media can play an important role for the manufacturing industry and can contribute to actual business growth, but it continues to be a challenge to convince people of that. In recent years, though, I’ve started to see a shift in that mindset, and it is really rewarding to be part of that transformation. When I can get someone to be just as excited as I am about social media, that is a huge accomplishment for me.

Sargeant: Becoming a production supervisor has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my career. Unlike computer models and drawings, the people I work with everyday are unpredictable.

In my latest assignment, I inherited a group of disgruntled workers who were working against each other. Bringing them together to meet our daily goals was a great challenge. However, facilitating change on the team and watching them as they finally met those goals was worth the struggle. Also, learning about manufacturing from employees who have done it for decades imparted a wealth of knowledge that could not be gained elsewhere.


How can/should manufacturers improve the recruiting process of the next generation of female talent?

Kovarik: To me the most important things that employers can do is create an open and transparent culture. This attracts high quality candidates in general, but longer-term there are clear linkages between performance and promotions.

Sandler: I think it’s important to improve the overall perception of the industry — not just for female talent, but for young talent. Targeting students at a younger age and exposing them to different manufacturing environments, whether that’s the shop floor or a marketing department, can show them the vast opportunities that are available to them. The same applies for recruiting female talent. Manufacturers need to improve the cultural perception that manufacturing is not a progressive environment.

Sargeant: Manufacturers need to start early and promote programs to get engineering in front of young women. I had the opportunity to volunteer at an Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day event that targeted junior high students. I was delighted to see the excitement in the girls’ eyes as they completed engineering activities. As the day progressed, it was clear that some of the girls were contemplating engineering as a career for the first time. To plant the seed of manufacturing careers at an early age could provide the opportunity to grow a healthy talent pipeline for manufacturing.


How can manufacturers support women already in the industry and promote career growth?

Kovarik: It’s such an exciting time to be a woman in STEM because we’re seeing a great influx of young women into management and more senior positions.

To me it feels, like we’re reaching the tipping point, and employers can help by reaching down beyond traditional levels in their human and talent development programs. By extending these programs beyond the director and more senior positions, companies can drill down into the middle and lower management roles where there is a lot of young, female talent and begin pipelining it for future leadership.

Sandler: I think mentorship programs can be a really valuable tool here to promote career growth. Getting that encouragement from another colleague can help with confidence and professional development and can empower a woman. Also, manufacturers should be open to providing additional training and education if there is a need or an interest.

Sargeant: Manufacturers should foster groups, such as the Women’s Initiative Network, that not only provide support for women but reach across gender lines to improve performance for all.


What would you tell women interested in STEM careers?

Kovarik: I would want women to know that there are companies, organizations and professionals in STEM that truly want them to join their organizations. This isn’t limited to just women in STEM, but men and entire companies, like Jabil, are already out there vying to recruit them as future leaders because there is a vast realization that diverse and multi-cultural organizations not only perform better, but also are more profitable.

Sandler: I would tell them that STEM careers can be very rewarding, challenging and exciting. You get to make meaningful contributions that can make a lasting impact. For example, I have a young female colleague that works on engineering projects that helps build new aircrafts. That’s pretty cool!

Sargeant: Go for it! And explore — there are so many opportunities available in STEM. Learn as much as you can about the career you are interested in and find the right fit. The sky is the limit.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)

Meredith Kovarik is Director, Supply Chain at Jabil in St. Petersburg, FL.





Faina Sandler is Global Content Marketing Specialist at Sandvik Coromant Company in Fair Lawn, NJ.





Chelsea Sargeant is Section Manager 4 at Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, IL.