American manufacturing is in the midst of a renaissance. As the industry evolves, grows and changes, its workforce is beginning to look different from what it did a decade ago, with an increasing number of women driving an important part of that growth. For these seven employees at INVISTA’s specialty fiber production facility in Camden, South Carolina – engineers, chemists, materials scientists and managers – it may just be business as usual. But for them, the right guidance, support and mentorship was crucial to reaching their goals and realizing their potential in manufacturing careers. Now, they’re ready to pay it forward. Here’s what they have to say about breaking into the business.
What led you to study fibers and fabrics?
Around seventh-grade, my mom mentioned that there was a polymer, textile and fiber engineering department at Georgia Tech that she’d heard about through her sorority alumna magazine. She didn’t know anything about it, but I remember her saying that it was cool to see people doing science with fabrics, and that stuck with me. When I met a rep from Clemson a few years later, I was thrilled to find that a place in South Carolina had the same kind of program as my mother had described, and their research spanned all kinds of interesting topics on materials, from submarines to spider silk to cotton to quantum dot color. I knew I would never be bored since there are so many different kinds of materials to learn about that make up everything.
-Eliza Allen, research engineer
How did you break into your field?
I honestly wasn’t even aware that this specific career path existed when I graduated college. I knew that I wanted to find work in my general field and continue to learn and grow my skills in a more realistic and practical environment, so I applied. While I didn’t know precisely what industry of chemistry I wanted to go into, I knew that research and development was the right path for me. I thrive in environments that are constantly changing and progressing forward. Being challenged and pushed every single day with some new task or adventure makes me feel accomplished, motivated and fulfilled – in both my professional and personal lives.
-Harley Rabon, assistant chemist
Breaking into the field was hard. Chemistry is a broad field which opens many doors, but picking the best one for you is scary and overwhelming. Networking in college lead to my first professional interview, where I wore a suit from the secondhand store, and then landed a job at a small manufacturing facility. I’m grateful to them for giving me industry experience that others required but wouldn’t give.
-Adria Cote, assistant chemist
Who inspired you to choose your career path?
There have been numerous female role models in my life who have inspired me in my career. My mother, who is a chemical engineer, taught me to pursue my dreams, work hard and never be afraid to succeed in math and sciences because of my gender. I’ve surrounded myself with amazing women who have been supportive of me being a scientist.
-Michelle Ivy, research and development manager
My kids, my family, my coworkers and myself. As a young mother, I wanted to become a positive role model. Working with individuals who care and take pride in what they are doing is just an extra incentive for me.
-Heather Peterson, technical assistant specialist
Did you have any mentors that helped you along the way?
While I could not have gotten to the place I am now without various professors and advisors, I think my greatest mentor in my career choice and in my life has been my father. He was a chemical engineer as well and always lent a helping hand to me in grade school and college. His industry experience helped me understand how the theoretical things I learned in college apply to the real world. I was always able to put things into perspective because of the experience he shared with me. Most importantly, when I was deciding on my career, he explained to me what working in each industry meant and what it would be like to work in that kind of environment. It was because of his mentorship that I decided to work in fiber research and development.
-Anna Caldwell, research engineer
I was lucky to have really helpful and imaginative science, math and art teachers who spent time teaching me fundamental concepts and skills, but strongly emphasized that most of learning, creating and building comes from asking questions like the “whys,” “hows” and “what ifs,” then listening, researching, experimenting, making mistakes, failing to solve a problem or create what you wanted, and then trying again until you get it right. Having mentors like that definitely drove me to feel confident in exploring an unknown career path.
In my final year of college, I had a professor who taught dyeing and finishing chemistry, and it seemed to bring everything together that I loved and was most interested in. That professor seemed to live in another dimension where all materials could be multifunctional and in colors like I’d never dreamt of. I asked him one day if there were graduate school programs where I could study this more or if there were jobs where people do things like this. When he said yes, that was a pivotal moment for me. I knew that I was going to find those jobs and programs and learn to make materials like that. In the time since that class, I have gone back to that professor again and again to ask more questions as I learn more, and the directions where he has pointed me have had profound impact on my work. I wish for everyone to have someone or something who inspires their work like that and challenges their ideas of what is possible.
-Eliza Allen, research engineer
Have you faced any challenges pursuing your career?
I had some significant challenges in college when my father became terminally ill and I lost my focus. I took a semester off and then came back with renewed determination. I also struggled with getting into management because everyone wanted someone with experience. I would recommend volunteering for anything that involves leadership if you are interested in supervision/management. I am now working on my MBA to learn more about the business side of manufacturing and face the challenges of having to juggle my daughter, work and school. So far, I’m doing very well in my classes, so it definitely can be done.
-Kristine Cannin, research and development technical lab manager