Building an Innovative and Diverse Workforce Means Starting Young

Panelists from industry and academia address the challenge of attracting and retaining talent to automation careers. STEM programs and early exposure are helping to spur interest.

The panel on workforce diversity at the Automation Conference & Expo included representatives from Leading Change, LLC, Chobani, Girlstart, Tamaki Control Ltd. and Women in Science and Engineering.
The panel on workforce diversity at the Automation Conference & Expo included representatives from Leading Change, LLC, Chobani, Girlstart, Tamaki Control Ltd. and Women in Science and Engineering.

As Google’s Susan Wojcicki wrote a few years ago, “Innovation thrives on diversity, and we simply can't afford for the future of technology not to represent women or people with different backgrounds and experiences.” While most corporate websites devote at least some real estate to their diversity initiatives, the automation workforce is often not as diverse as the brochures would have you believe.

At their panel on workforce diversity at the Automation Conference & Expo, representatives from Chobani, Tamaki Control Ltd., Leading Change, LLC, Women in Science and Engineering and Girlstart discussed ways to attract and retain the next generation to industrial careers. The panelists gave feedback on current shortfalls they’ve identified, tips for STEM programs and successful inclusion beyond the hiring stage.

“Diversity and inclusion are two different things,” began Dr. Peggie Koon, CEO and founder of Leading Change, LLC. “Diversity is when you’re invited to a party. Inclusion is when you’re asked to dance.” Having a diverse staff is one thing, but Dr. Koon explained that inclusion means that people are part of the team. This is about listening to an employee’s contributions when they are valuable and supporting them in a manner that helps them excel in an organization.

Panelists agreed that we all have inherent biases, and that we have to look at what we do—consciously or unconsciously—to allow those biases to impact the way we include others. One way to bring personal biases into view is to take Harvard’s implicit-association test (IAT).

Alicia Lomas, automation and controls manager at Chobani, said that when she was first hired, a staff member mentioned that they had wanted to get a female on the team, and then backtracked to say she had the best resume. It goes without saying that a candidate wants to be hired because they’re the best person for the job. “That [comment] could have thrown me off, but people at the company talked to me and it worked out,” said Lomas.

How can companies signal that qualified diverse applicants will be included at their institution? “Show it in the leadership,” said Veronica Arreola, director of the Women In Science and Engineering Program at University of Illinois, Chicago. “There may be diverse pictures in the brochure, but then you click on ‘Leadership’ and it’s not diverse.” Arreola said the answer might lie in including leadership pictures at a lower level where diversity is currently growing. This is a much more valuable demonstration than simply selecting clip art.

Some attendees voiced concerns over the lack of young talent in the manufacturing labor pool. One long-term option is to reach students earlier in life with STEM programs to get them interested in manufacturing. Julie Shannan, deputy director of Girlstart, explained that children—especially girls—need exposure to science and automation technologies early on. Through Girlstart, girls are learning to use tools like LabVIEW and robotics, and she’s seeing an improvement in their awareness about STEM opportunities.

For companies looking to do their part, sponsoring field trips to see manufacturing facilities can help to hook kids young, especially as decreasing education budgets make school-funded field trips unlikely.

Lomas also voiced a need for more practical education, to get students involved in areas like PLC programming in high school. Cody Warren, controls engineer at Tamaki Control Ltd. said he felt that interest was steadily creeping up. “I think it’s a natural progression, now that Arduinos and Pis are becoming mainstream.”

Once exposed to STEM careers, the panelists zeroed in on the mental aspect of keeping students interested in engineering and automation. Arreola said, “Teach them that struggling and failing are part of [their] success plan.” Shannan agreed, adding, “Tell them to keep trying instead of telling them they’re smart, so they don’t fall apart when they get a B.”

Dr. Koon, who was encouraged by her own family to pursue a technical career, emphasized the need for a solid foundation at home. “Parents and siblings have a role. If you know or have kids, you have a responsibility to make sure that girls have equal opportunities and access.”

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