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Women in Manufacturing: “You Can Be Yourself”

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation presents its Go Bold initiative, which promotes women in manufacturing careers. This 4-part article series highlights the role women play in the manufacturing industry, the challenges they face, and what industry leaders are doing to combat those challenges right here in Cabarrus County.

The future can be found in a variety of places. For Leandra Young, Lead Receiver at Corning Optical Communications – Newton Cable Plant, it was discovered during an undergraduate co-op. A pharmaceutical manufacturing company presented her with the opportunity of hands-on, real world experience in an industry predominantly made up of men. Little did she know, that opportunity would inform the rest of her life.

Education is one of many resources that affords such opportunities. Thanks to the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation’s (CEDC) partnership with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Cabarrus County is able to provide existing companies, as well as those looking to locate here, with real world training for their future manufacturing workforce. These hands-on experiences are necessary to draw more women to careers in engineering and industrial technologies. In fact, it’s one of the five focus areas for changing the perception of manufacturing for women, according to Bishop-Wisecarver President Pamela Kan.

In our previous Women in Manufacturing series article, Minding the Gap, we highlighted the five areas:

  1. Working with educators and parents to differentiate myths from reality
  2. Serving as mentors and role models
  3. Providing hands-on experiences
  4. Showcasing innovation/technology
  5. Highlighting meaningful work

This week, we’re shining a light on one local woman whose past experiences and current work within the industry embodies those key areas. In fact, we already mentioned her. She’s Lead Receiver Leandra Young, who also happens to be the lead for Corning’s Women in Manufacturing & Friends initiative.

Corning, Inc. first came to Midland, NC in the 1990s. Since then, the corporation has become Cabarrus County’s biggest taxpayer with a property value of nearly $329.3 million, according to a 2018 article by the Independent Tribune. They have also invested in the community by contributing to the growth of the Cabarrus County Schools’ VEX Robotics Program. “Corning has always taken a very proactive approach to workforce development, recognizing the importance of industry exposure for young students,” says CEDC Existing Industry Director Page Castrodale. “That’s just one of the many reasons we’re proud to have them in our community.”

Even before it supported our future workforce, Corning was at the forefront of gender inclusion in manufacturing. Women played an integral role in the development and success of the corporation as early as 1913. So, it should come as no surprise that Corning’s Women in Manufacturing & Friends initiative grew out of their corporate sponsorship of the national Women in Manufacturing (WiM) organization. And so far, the initiative is off to a promising start, having grown from 11 members to 160 in a single year.

Young views this platform as her opportunity to “initiate a culture of change—where women and men work together in the manufacturing environment to support, develop, and inspire women at all levels within the Corning footprint.” As part of the initiative, members participate in panel discussions, lunch and learns, networking events, and informal mentoring opportunities. Together, these 160 individuals at Corning are actively helping to change the perception of women in manufacturing, one misconception at a time.

“Many women feel like you have to look, talk, and act like a man to be successful. That is not required. You can be yourself—as long as you deliver results consistently,” says Young. With an ever-present shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing, results are every company’s main priority—not the gender of its employees. While “there are still not enough women in leadership roles” within the industry today, mentorship from Young and her fellow initiative members is essential to shaping how the industry looks tomorrow. After all, it was through opportunity that Leandra Young found her future.

Young currently serves as the plant-level manufacturing leader of new product innovation processes as well as the key liaison between plant staff, division engineering, and new technology development teams. To put it simply, she is an important component of the Corning manufacturing machine; yet, she would have never been there if it wasn’t for her undergraduate co-op experience. It was there that she discovered how much she enjoyed the pace of the manufacturing environment.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA in Technology Management from Stevens Institute of Technology, Young took a slight detour into telecommunications only to find her way back to the work she enjoyed. There was “always something to figure out, and it was always something different each time” in manufacturing. This worked well with her desire for variety and passion for technology.

In fact, technology plays an instrumental role in what the manufacturing industry looks like today. When asked what skills are critical to success in modern manufacturing, Young highlighted “technical and organizational savvy” above all else. She says, “Manufacturing can be task oriented at times, but it is important to understand that technology is at the center of it. Being comfortable with evolving technology is key to success, whether it’s a product line extension or new data analysis application.”

If you are a woman interested in STEM and looking for work, let Leandra Young be an example of all that’s possible in manufacturing. Find opportunities for hands-on experience through education, internships, or co-op programs. Cabarrus County provides plenty of them through Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the North Carolina Manufacturing Institute. “We are so fortunate to have Rowan-Cabarrus Community College as a partner,” notes Castrodale. “They do not shy away from the workforce challenges we see and are quick to provide a pathway forward, both for the individual and the organization.”

Once you enter the field as a production worker, ask questions—to women, to men, to someone above or below your own level. Never be afraid to seek mentorship. If the members of Corning’s Women in Manufacturing & Friends are any indication, you’re sure to find it. Skilled women have value and can find success in manufacturing, just like Leandra Young did. So, the only real question that remains is… Who will be next?

>> Click here to read our interview questions and responses with Leandra Young.

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