ELYRIA — The outdated image of the dark, dank and dirty factory, where fathers and grandfathers toiled away doing back-breaking work until retirement, is something Deborah Manzano would like to dispel.
Manzano, general manager at the Ford Assembly Plant in Avon Lake, speaking to a crowd of middle and high school students, said Tuesday that automobile manufacturing in the 21st century is the exact opposite. However, the false perception remains a strong barrier that dissuades women and young professionals from seeing manufacturing as a viable career path.
“If you think that, you would be wrong,” Manzano said. “These are high-skilled, high-paying jobs in a clean, safe environment. … We help people create, innovate and move forward.”
And, Manzano told the crowd she gets to drive a Mustang every day — a bonus to a crowd of preteens that will marvel over a fast car.
Manzano and other female engineers and manufacturing professionals participated in an interactive event at Lorain County Community College that highlighted science, technology, engineering and math disciplines with a focus on engineering.
Most of Manzano’s career has been spent in Michigan, where she grew up and attended the University of Michigan for both her undergraduate and graduate studies. Manzano came to Ohio Assembly in 2016. She soon will head back to Michigan, where she will be the plant manager at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant outside of Detroit.
October is Ohio Manufacturing Month and to showcase the importance of manufacturing in Lorain County, the Lorain County Growth Partnership and Lorain County Chamber of Commerce worked with the Society of Women Engineers to bring Manzano to campus.
Manzano did not come alone.
Alongside her sat a panel of women with management roles at the plant. They include a first-generation college student who in 2014 only was the second black women to earn an electrical engineering bachelor’s degree from the University of Akron to a second-generation Ford worker who followed in her father’s footsteps and is now a team manager in the trim department.
“Everyday I get to talk to the people building our trucks and pick their brains and see if they think there is a better way to do something,” said Laurie Varndell, who has been at Ohio Assembly for 25 years, calling the work process the best part of her day aside from when a new model is launched and first rolls off the assembly line.
Manzano said there are a lot of female managers at the plant where there are about 1,800 employees including the United Auto Workers workforce and salaried employees of Ford Motor Co. “But there is still a low ratio at Ohio as well as all the Ford manufacturing facilities.”
“There is only about 25 percent of the female population that works in manufacturing, and at Ford it is even less,” she said. “Even from the hourly workforce you see more females than you ever used to back in the day, 23 years ago when I started. Then, it was a one off, but now you see it much more.”
Coaching and developing new talent starts years before an employee walks through the door, she said. It starts with community partnerships to highlight work products, recruiting at colleges and universities and even encouraging young people to join STEM programs that act as funnels for advanced degree programs geared toward engineering. Seeing another woman in manufacturing also allows for girls and women to have a mind shift when it comes to manufacturing, Manzano said.
“It’s something that women don’t think is for them. They don’t think it’s flexible. They figured it’s a hard job and they just won’t have the opportunities because it’s a male-dominated society. Those are the barriers we are trying to break down,” she said. “We need women to get into STEM so that when we go recruit, there are women available in engineering to recruit into manufacturing. Usually the ratio is always less than 25 percent women to men.”
Rachelle Forney, an electrical engineer who came to Ford after working at Republic Steel, said she didn’t mind being the only woman or black woman in her studies because she knew the jobs were out there for her. The mother of a 13-year-old son, she said she didn’t have other female engineers to look up to in her family, but she is now seeing more in the field.
“At this point to have just one or two is abnormal. Things are changing,” she said.