STEM Education / Workforce Diversity / Workforce Development / Changing Workforce / Women in Manufacturing / Skills Gap

'Oh, wow, look what she did' — Increasing gender equity in manufacturing

In this Big Picture Interview, Amanda Saam explains why she left an industry job for a teaching role.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

For our October 2015 cover story (“Facing workforce change”), managing editor Christine LaFave Grace interviewed Amanda Saam, then a recent graduate of Somerset (KY) Community College’s Industrial Maintenance Technology program and a new maintenance technician hire at Hitachi. This summer, Saam embarked on a new adventure: She signed on to teach at Owensboro (KY) Community and Technical College (OCTC) as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to increase gender equity in manufacturing. Saam and Sheri Plain, principal director for the project, talked to LaFave Grace about the effort.

PS: You were working at Hitachi when Butch Tincher, a previous instructor of yours at Somerset, contacted you about this opportunity in Owensboro. What was it that led you take the leap of faith, move across the state, and leave an industry job for a teaching role?

AS: It has been quite the whirlwind, let me tell you. I was beyond thrilled when they called and offered me the position. I was really excited about the cause, trying to encourage more women into the field. When I interviewed, I told them, “Look, no matter who fills this position, this is a wonderful thing that you’re doing, and I really hope that you’re able to reach the audience that you’re targeting.” Just to be given the opportunity to be a part of something bigger, bigger than myself, bigger than what I was doing at Hitachi. And I loved the opportunity at Hitachi; I have nothing but positive things to say about Hitachi. But to have an opportunity to pay it forward – it’s been an incredible adventure, and it’s something I’m really excited for my kiddo to see.

PS: Sheri, the project’s official title is Advancing Female Incumbent Workers in the Manufacturing Industry – you’re targeting women who are already in manufacturing jobs, trying to encourage them to go back to school for training that will allow them to move into more-advanced, higher-paying positions. Why was this a priority for OCTC?

SP: Right now in our community, manufacturing is very robust; everyone is running at full capacity, and they just can’t keep enough good maintenance techs. They’re getting ready to lose quite a few of their (people) to retirement, and they want to build pipelines, and they’re looking at one of the most valuable resources: the women who are working in production. We hope with this project to not only reach those women but to uncover why they’re not going after the higher-paying maintenance technician jobs, to pilot-test strategies to get them in the classroom to get their credentials so that they can move into these positions. We’ve got the great connection with Amanda coming in working with them; we just need to uncover everything that’s standing in their way and work with them to overcome those challenges.

PS: You’ve mentioned cost and logistics hurdles as a hurdle to enrollment for women in particular. Can you explain?

SP: (With our accelerated training program) employers just pay the employee for the three days they’re working, and not their two days in class, but they do pay for tuition and books. What we’re finding out is for men, that’s usually not an issue, because they’ll just pick up those extra hours working at night or on the weekend. But with the women who’ve been interested in the program, most of them are the single income earner of their family; they can’t afford to miss the two days’ pay, and they can’t work part time because they have to have their benefits, and because they’re a single parent, they have childcare issues and other things to deal with; they can’t work the weekend or at night; they can’t make up the time. So right now that’s the biggest obstacle.

We're looking at solutions; we just had a brainstorming session with some partners about how to one, look at resources available in the community that might help to make up for the time that they're not working and working with the employers to commit that they won't take them to part-time status so they can keep their benefits. Another is to really look at the way we deliver their educational training, really focusing on competency-based, really drill down to make their time that they spend learning and practicing those skills the most valuable. We cut out duplication, and as long as the skill and the competency is covered, we don't cover it in four different classes; we cover it in their starting class. We're also getting together a focus group of women from these companies who said that they would be interested in the program except that they can't (participate) because they can't afford to do it, and we're actually going to flesh that out some more. Is it health insurance? Is it childcare? So we can document that and take it to the community.

PS: Amanda, you were the only woman in your Industrial Maintenance Tech graduating class. What value do you see in having women in maintenance instructor and mentor roles?

AS: When I came into the program (at Somerset), Amy Caudill (a 2011 graduate who went on to become a maintenance team lead at Toyota Motor Manufacturing) was the one that I focused on and was inspired by. The feeling of “Oh, wow, look what she did”—many times, that was what kept my fire burning. You know, “It worked for her, it can work for me, too.”

So to pay it forward or to pay it back—it was so important for me. I think a lot of women don’t realize that you come into (a program like this), you’re going to be received as family.