How to Build a Career in Manufacturing

Data analysis skills and financial acumen could help engineers drive manufacturing efficiency and more.

Daphne Allen

May 28, 2024

9 Min Read
Sheila Chickene, global operations executive at Society of Women Engineers—Charlotte Metrolina Chapter

At a Glance

  • Sheila Chickene, global operations executive, Society of Women Engineers, will speak on a panel on manufacturing careers
  • IME South features 6 co-located shows: D&M South, ATX South, MD&M South, SouthPack, Plastic South & Powder/Bulk Solids South.

With US manufacturing expanding, job opportunities are growing. New skills are needed, though, as US manufacturers are advancing their operations through technologies like automation and artificial intelligence to be competitive globally.

To help engineers, technicians, and managers build successful careers in manufacturing, IME South will be hosting the June 5 panel discussion, Pathways to Success: Navigating Careers and Advancing in Manufacturing. Moderated by Tara Beck, Chair/President of the Women in Manufacturing NC chapter, the panel will feature Shannon Bell, associate director, SIOP and materials, interior cabin products at Collins Aerospace; Sheila Chickene, global operations executive at Society of Women Engineers—Charlotte Metrolina Chapter; Kressie Rhoades, strategic talent attraction leader; and Brandon Craig, programmer analyst at Charlotte Pipe & Foundry Company.

Design News caught up with Chickene ahead of the show to ask her a few questions about manufacturing careers and to get a preview of the discussion. Chickene has led large manufacturing sites and operations teams for Fortune 500 organizations and has worked to develop talent, maximize gross margins, streamline processes, improve productivity, optimize costs, and more.

What’s going on in manufacturing that makes it a good or challenging career?

Chickene: Let’s start with the “good” …… every day in manufacturing is different and the variety of opportunities are abundant.  Managing COVID-related issues and the resulting supply chain ups and downs thereafter brought new challenges to manufacturing. In the aftermath of these unprecedented challenges, many people are considering a transition or have just gone through one. Currently, I'm doing a lot of coaching for those in my network on their resume, on their LinkedIn profile, and on networking so they are prepared for that transition. Several of the panelists will touch on their transition journeys.

That suggests there are opportunities in manufacturing right now.

Chickene: There are usually a good number of opportunities in manufacturing. One of the things we are seeing is a focus on people who can do something with data. There is so much data in manufacturing. We need people who can transform data so that it is actionable. It is as important as financial acumen for an engineer, as they progress through their career.

What are the specific skills or strategies engineers should pursue if they're currently working engineers? Should they go back to school or look for continuing education credits in analytics or other skills?

Chickene: It would depend on whether their company provides some of those learning opportunities and what is needed for their career goals. I find that many engineers get early training, in something like finance, and then training never progresses beyond that to evolve their understanding of how the business works. Financial acumen and the ability to transform data are important for nearly any engineering or manufacturing function. If someone is targeting an executive role, the broader the experience they can gain, the better. For instance, some engineers snub the quality management function at the company. I had the opportunity to work in the quality function early in my career. I believe that experience provided the best opportunity to learn about manufacturing and the customer concurrently. My advice is to be open to a variety of experiences so that when you are leading a larger organization, you better understand as many functions as possible.

You mentioned that there's been some transitions from COVID. We've been talking about Industry 4.0 and digital transformation for some time. Do you still think that's the natural pathway for everything, or do you think some of this is now getting influenced by AI and newer forces?

Chickene: Certainly, AI will continue to be a topic, especially in the evolution of Industry 4.0. Many organizations are still early in the digital and automation maturity curves. However, we may see an acceleration of automation, as other trends like the double-digit wage rate increases in low-cost manufacturing countries continue. Business cases that previously didn't exist for automation are now possible. 

Automation also provides a risk-management component should we go through another COVID-like period where complete manufacturing facilities were shut down due to COVID-related absences or to prevent further COVID spreading throughout that plant’s team members. With automation, the production operator or technician density lessens and there is less dependence on those team members to produce a company’s products. Thus, to manage cost and risk, automation for those companies that have manufacturing, in previously low-cost labor industries, is a trend I am seeing.

You have experience in streamlining processes, improving productivity, and optimizing costs. Are there any lessons or other things you’d like to share during the panel discussion on what you've learned over the years and how that could inspire engineers?

Chickene: Those experiences were about figuring out how to get the chaos out of the system and using analytical skills to determine what is creating the issues.  To do that, it often takes networking and discussion with a variety of functions to really understand perspectives and come back with common themes on what's happening. It goes back to the idea that it's not just our engineering skills that lead us to success—a broad base of knowledge across functions enables the ability to quickly parse out the low-hanging fruit and actions needed for streamlining. 

In one of my roles, I worked with the commercial team on portfolio optimization. It is a rare day when a salesperson champions removing a product from their portfolio as they want as many tools in the toolbox as possible. We had cross-functional discussions based on the data—where products were not profitable, we investigated the importance of the product in the portfolio vs other options. From there, if we wanted to keep that product and also wanted the product to be profitable, we had to work together to engineer out the cost and/or increase the selling price. So, streamlining required having a wider view by analyzing the portfolio, looking at the data, and working with engineers and other business functions to determine the best actions forward.

It sounds like you're encouraging engineers to not always be heads down in their work and to look around to colleagues or other departments.

Chickene: Yes.

Are engineers receptive to that?

Chickene: Many of us are introverts by nature and thus stepping out of our area of comfort is not always easy. However, I don't know how someone develops a full perspective unless they have those moments of connection and communication. So, whatever it takes to step out of one’s comfort zone and figure out the other functions of the company, I think it benefits the engineer greatly.

Would that advice hold for engineers who are not on a management path and who just want to support their companies and their team?

Chickene: Yes. When I think of some of the highest-level subject matter experts with whom I've worked, they still needed to understand the business and what the customer wanted. Sometimes they get sent to the customer to fix something. They need to make connections, so they understand their industry and their customers to the degree that it helps them successfully do their job. 

What would you say the future holds for jobs in manufacturing or engineering?

Chickene: I think it goes back to what you and I were discussing about Industry 4.0, automation, and AI. There are a lot of us who have to learn more about all of those subjects. Obviously, there are going to be subject matter experts in each one of those, but we all need to keep learning. 

What I learned in my bachelor's program was enough to help me halfway through my career. I finished my doctorate in 2013 and even then I was learning things that I could bring back to my role. So, with so many new topics on the horizon, I believe we all need to continue learning. With any formal education, including open learning, there's always something to bring back to your role.

Even coming to panel discussions, right?

Chickene: Absolutely! Another opportunity is a board leadership role in a professional society like SWE [Society of Women Engineers] or any other nonprofit board. I encourage those early in their career who aspire to be a leader in their company to lead in these professional or nonprofit organizations. It is a great way to get early leadership experience outside your current organization and then be prepared when the next job description requires formal leadership experience.

What has SWE meant to you? What could it mean to other engineers?

Chickene: In my last company, the leadership encouraged us to join and covered the cost. I was already a member of a few other professional organizations, the IISE (Institute of Industrial and System Engineers), ASQ (American Society for Quality), and WIM (Women in Manufacturing) with which I participated a little bit. I didn't do much with my SWE membership until I received an email advising that the current leaders needed more help and asking for volunteers to jump into leader roles for the next year. Several other members and I who joined the executive board went from 0 to 100 very quickly in learning what we had available and creating professional programs. I'm enjoying it. I originally said I would give it one year, however, that went by very quickly. We recently had a panel, “Journey to Board Leadership.” The panelists shared that some great opportunities come from deciding to do more than just your job and jumping into things like this. As much as it is extra work, we have had fun while doing it! 

Do you have any final thoughts for engineers to encourage them to come to your session?

Chickene: Our panel is quite diverse. We may have all started as engineers (or like positions) but ended up in very different roles. I find it interesting to hear about those journeys as they provide me with a broader view of the options for my next adventure. Everyone has their paradigm, and it just broadens the view a bit.

Anything you're looking forward to seeing at the show?

Chickene: I am looking forward to walking around and seeing the exhibits. I find that it is just like any other learning. Going to a conference has the potential to connect me with a solution to a current manufacturing challenge. It certainly increases my knowledge more than if I had stayed in my office for the day.

Join us June 5 for the panel discussion, Pathways to Success: Navigating Careers and Advancing in Manufacturing. IME South features six different co-located shows: Design & Manufacturing SouthATX South, MD&M South, SouthPack, Plastic South, and Powder/Bulk Solids South.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Tara Beck's title at Trane Technologies as president.

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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