A STEP Toward More Women in Manufacturing

June 3, 2015

Chelsea Sargeant never thought she’d end up here. Armed with a degree from MIT, Sargeant had every intention of becoming a design engineer. She ended up on the shop floor.

“On my first day of work, I stood on the shop floor in all of my safety equipment thinking, ‘What in the world did I get myself into?’”

Sargeant is a distribution supervisor, working with material handlers to make sure the production line at Caterpillar’s Decatur, Illinois, facility has everything it needs – ranging from bolts to large engines and cabs.

Her experience on the production side is thanks to a multi-rotational assignment program in operations management. Once she got a taste of manufacturing, she couldn’t 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,” she said.

Caterpillar’s lucky to have Sargeant in one of its production facilities. After completing the rotational program near the end of 2013, Sargeant took over the second shift Supply Chain Logistics distribution workgroup in her hometown of Decatur. Last year, her team helped the Logistics team meet all of the quality metrics and significantly decreased the number of injuries sustained.

Part of the reason why Sargeant didn’t think she’d end up in the manufacturing side of engineering is because she didn’t have exposure to it at a younger age. Female K-12 students often aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in the industry, and many of them don’t understand the amazing opportunities the manufacturing industry can offer on the design side or the production side. This failure to introduce girls to all of their career options has helped contribute to the skills gap in manufacturing. While women make up approximately half of the overall labor force, that number is only about 25 percent in manufacturing.

To help close this gap, the Manufacturing Institute launched the STEP Ahead initiative. As part of the initiative, the organization recognizes and honors women in the manufacturing industry, from the shop floor and design labs to the executive suite, who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in their careers. Four Caterpillar women, including Sargeant, were named 2015 STEP Ahead Award Honorees and Emerging Leaders (see sidebar).

The STEP Awards initiative gives resources to its network of manufacturing professionals to share with their employers to help more women engineers develop and advance during their careers. According to this year’s award recipients, Caterpillar has already started tackling the challenges women face in manufacturing.

“Caterpillar provides endless opportunities to learn, grow, and be challenged in your career. At each step of the way in my career, I've had a great support system of peers, leaders and mentors that have guided me in new directions,” said Katie Kaltz, group manager.

This year’s STEP Awards recipients – and countless other Caterpillar employees – have also worked to inspire the next generation female leaders to pursue a career in manufacturing. One of Caterpillar’s employee resource groups, the Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), is growing in many facilities. The group provides a safe space for women to help each other pursue careers in engineering and manufacturing. Last year, Sargeant volunteered at “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” which was sponsored by WIN’s chapter in Decatur. She’s chairing this year’s event, which will give seventh and eighth grade girls the chance to see manufacturing in action and to try some engineering themselves.

“These women … play an important role in the development of a rich manufacturing talent pipeline," said Denise Johnson, vice president of Material Handling and Underground, while congratulating the Caterpillar women who received STEP Awards this year.

Hopefully in the future, thanks to the efforts and influence of leaders like the STEP Awards recipients, more and more girls will want to work in manufacturing like Chelsea Sargeant when they grow up, and Caterpillar will have to rely less on luck to get talented women into the field.

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