It’s an all-too-familiar refrain in industry that manufacturers are struggling to meet their workforce needs because young people today are less interested in trades careers and/or would rather go to work for a big-name consumer tech company than an industrial manufacturing business. But part of that, says Endress+Hauser industrial engineering planner Adrianna Swift, 25, stems from an awareness gap: Students even peripherally aware of trades or engineering possibilities often don’t have a concrete idea of what those careers can look like – how tech-forward they can be, how creative they can be, how well-paying they can be. And it’s on manufacturers, says Swift, a 2019 Influential Women in Manufacturing honoree, to engage young people by giving them a look at the business in action (as through apprenticeships or internships) and highlighting the company’s values and mission.
PS: How did your background help prepare you for a job in STEM?
AS: “When I was applying to college, I thought that I wanted to be a doctor. So for most of the schools I was applying to, I was applying to arts and science programs, not engineering programs. Then when I got to school and I started taking general chemistry and biology, I quickly realized that my brain does not work just by memorizing things – I learn by practicing and by doing. So about halfway through my freshman year, I decided to make the transition into our engineering program, and I ended up majoring in chemical engineering, which was good for me because it’s really around problem-solving. It’s more about understanding the root cause of an issue and then using data or math or some objective knowledge to come up with a tangible solution. So moving into my career, I’ve been able to kind of leverage everything I learned as a chemical engineer in school to more of an industrial role. In my current role, I’m integrating different manufacturing processes in order to create a final product. It’s been really helpful to have my engineering degree to do what I’m doing now, even though what I studied isn’t technically what I’m doing today.”
PS: What is one thing you’ve learned that you wished you had learned sooner?
AS: “I wish that growing up, I had been more exposed to what different types of engineering are out there. When I got to school and I decided to transfer, I was kind of late in the game, and it wasn’t really an option for me to stay an extra year at school. So I had to make a really quick decision on what major I wanted to do. I had always been really strong in chemistry, so I thought ‘Oh, of course, chemical engineering; it’s like chemistry; I’ll be great.’ And I quickly found out that that is not true at all. So, I struggled in college as I transitioned from just general hard sciences to an engineering program, because the concepts were different and the way of thinking was different. There are so many different types of engineering that you can go into nowadays that are so specialized; I just didn’t have that knowledge.”
PS: What are some ways that you think the engineering fields could help to expose students to different types of engineering and what they entail?
AS: “Exposure is my biggest thing that I try to advocate for – really just getting people in those roles to go out and talk to students about what their careers look like. Because on paper, being a chemical engineer looks like you’re just sitting at a desk all day writing out some diagrams and doing really hard balance equations. But in reality, it can be a very diverse work experience where you’re working on lots of different projects, you’re up on your feet all day, you’re traveling, you’re visiting sites. So I think just getting people like me and other engineers to do the legwork of educating the younger generation on the opportunities that are available to them (is vital). Anyone can do a Google search, but that’s not going to give you the face-to-face interaction and realness of what people who are actually in those positions are doing.”
PS: How can industry make some of these opportunities not just more visible but also more accessible, especially given that many of these roles require at least a four-year engineering degree?
AS: “It was probably more true in the ‘80s and ‘90s that you did not have to have an engineering degree to be an engineer, because I work with several engineers who don’t have engineering degrees. They’ve just kind of worked their way up. But nowadays it’s a little more political when it comes to the titles that you have and the positions you can apply for. There are lots of positions now, and my home state, Indiana, through the schools now they are pushing internship programs for high schoolers. Next year we’ll have a high school intern that will come in a few hours every week and work. They don’t have a degree and they’re going to be doing the work, and they can either leverage that experience to go to college or they can try to find a position that doesn’t require them to have an engineering degree. And another really good pathway to increase accessibility for people who aren’t fortunate enough to go to college are apprenticeship programs. The number of welders and machinists is dwindling very fast, because more people are opting to get engineering degrees, and typically people who earn engineering degrees don’t want to go into those fields specifically. My company, Endress+Hauser, has an apprenticeship program. So our company is actually funding students’ two-year associate’s degree at a local community college, and then they also work part time to full time in our facility, learning as they study. There are more options, but it also is on the companies out here that are looking to fill those positions to do their work. It’s not all about recruiting; it’s also having the knowledge base on your campus to help spread the knowledge that you need to gain and retain.”
PS: How has advocating for diversity been helpful for you and for your company?
AS: “Diversity should be a verb. Diversity should be something that you’re constantly striving for and (working to) mold your company’s policy, recruiting and training around diversity. Whether that’s diversity of thought, diversity of race, gender, whatever it might be, it has to be an ever-evolving process. For me it’s been rewarding. I’ve taken several little steps to get my company to be more diverse. They are already sponsors of the Society of Women Engineers, and we’re pretty active in Women in Manufacturing, but I also suggested, let’s try to expand this reach. So I’ve got them to commit to going to a National Society of Black Engineers conference next year, and maybe also I can start pushing the Society of Hispanic Engineers. It’s just the small things that you suggest to the people who are in charge to try out to really motivate them to explore different opportunities to achieve this diversity. I don’t want to go somewhere where it’s always one color, one gender, because that’s not the world that I live in, and I want my morals and my values to be reflected through the company that I work for. So as we move forward, I hope that my company moves a little faster, because the world is changing very fast and if we don’t keep up with that, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to stay competitive with our competitors who might value diversity and inclusion a little more than we do.”
“The world that we live in is changing very fast, especially with my generation, Millennials and gen Zers. And I already feel disconnected from that generation and I’m only 25, so I think that companies, older companies, smaller companies (for which) maybe diversity wasn’t important to them five years ago, it has to be important today in order to keep up with the societal changes that are happening. Because pretty soon there’s going to be people that they won’t be able to reach, because diversity is going to be the No. 1 thing they look for when they are looking for jobs. And if you don’t have that, they won’t look at you, and now you’re missing out on top talent. So I want to just push that, and in order to keep up with the changing world, our companies have to change with it. You can’t lag behind. Otherwise you’re losing future value in your company.”