20 to Watch: Women in HVAC - Rachel Gordon
Production engineer, quality manager, Unico Inc.
Name: Rachel Gordon
Title: Production engineer, quality manager, Unico Inc.
Educational Experience: Master’s degree in manufacturing engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology, 2017; and a bachelor’s degree in technical graphics from Southeast Missouri State University, 2010.
Professional Credentials/Accreditations: Six Sigma green belt (6sigma.us), 2019; LEAN 101 (Missouri Enterprise), 2018; CAD/CAM & Rapid Product Realization (Missouri University of Science and Technology), 2014; and Certified Solidworks Professional (CSWP), 2013.
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards:Society of Women Engineers
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with design engineering. I had wanted to become a math teacher since high school. I had the greatest Algebra 2 teacher, and all I wanted to do was to be her. But, eventually, I realized that teaching mathematics was not for me. Thankfully, Southeast Missouri State University had a nice broad range of choices to choose from for a new major, and I stumbled across an AutoCAD class. I went into that class knowing zero about CAD, but after that first class, I was hooked. All the different ways of making something from nothing amazed me. When I took the next CAD class, I knew this was my calling. I took a Solid Edge class and was taught how to reverse engineer a product just by taking the dimensions and drawing it up on the screen. This was by far the most amazing thing I have ever done. I changed my major to technical graphics with a minor in mathematics.
I started as an intern at Viking Cives Midwest, where I helped design parts for MoDOT and IDOT trucks. This helped me gain knowledge of real-world engineering. When I started at my current position, I was informed that a benefit of working here was that they would pay for my master’s in engineering. The best thing about engineering and technology in general is that it is constantly changing and, therefore, you are forever needing to learn if you are willing. After being at Unico for a year, I applied for my master’s in manufacturing engineering at Missouri University of Science & Technology and received my degree in May of 2017.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
I feel very lucky that I was given the opportunity to work at Unico Inc. I have held four different positions while working here and each position has provided a new skill set in such a short amount of time. I have been a design drafter, senior designer, product designer, and now a production engineer/quality manager. When I was in the product designer position, I was the sole person in charge of designing new products for our company, and I was lucky enough that Unico Inc. decided to pursue two big projects while I was in that position: the Vertical Product Line and the Twist Fit System. Both projects are among the most innovative and successful products released by the company in the last seven years. The Twist Fit System took three years to complete and has been the most rewarding aspect of my career thus far.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
First, I’ll start with the second proudest moment in my career, which was when I graduated with a master’s in manufacturing engineering.
My proudest moment was just being accepted into the program. I remember talking it over with my father in 2011 that my new job at Unico Inc. would make it possible for me to go to graduate school while I was working full time.
Although, my father never finished college, he worked at Scott Air Force base as an information systems analyst. Because he was determined to do better, throughout his career, he self-taught himself additional competencies by being in love with what he was doing and always attaining additional knowledge.
He read books, took classes, received certifications, and was able to prove to everyone that even without a college degree. He was smart, driven, and could do the job.
I wanted to prove to my father that I could be driven and determined just like him. So, at the end of 2011, I applied and was accepted into the program for the fall 2012 session. The only thing that put a damper on this moment was that my father passed away days before starting my first class; however, that second proudest moment was that I was able to complete my degree and prove to myself that I am just as determined as my father was and will continue to use that determination as I push forward in my career as an engineer.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?
I think women face more challenges in the engineering profession than most realize. I was once a member of the Society of Woman Engineers, and I heard that most women have difficulty speaking in a room full of male colleagues. That could be for a variety of reasons, although some do not feel that their thoughts and opinions are valued.
Luckily, I do not find that is the case at my current company. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s a small company, and everyone is treated equally. However, where I do see an issue is with the number of women in the business of manufacturing. In an engineering office setting, I feel it’s more likely that women will be valued as much as their male counterparts. The top two engineering degrees for women in 2017 were mechanical and chemical; manufacturing was No. 6, and I believe it’s further down the list because it’s a much more male-dominated industry, especially in HVAC.
I faced a challenge and resistance to change while being a production engineer in 2018. I was tasked with making the plant layout more lean-focused. I received significant pushback from the shop floor personnel for the changes I needed to make.
The pushback remained present even after I provided time studies and showing how these changes would make it easier and better for everyone on the floor.
After speaking with some of the individuals on the shop floor, I was informed it was because “They are told what to do by their wives at home and did not want to be told what to do by a woman at work.” I reached out to my boss, as I didn’t know how to handle such resistance. Here is where communicating the challenges is key to progress. My supervisor was unaware there was such a level of resentment on the production floor and shared that he would fix the issue right away by speaking with the plant on my behalf. It was an unfortunate circumstance, and I’m thankful that I haven’t ran into an issue like that since then.
I think the biggest reason more women aren’t in engineering is that they don’t realize it is something they could really love and be good at.
Had I not decided to take that one class in AutoCAD my sophomore year in college, I would not be where I am today. My high school didn’t have any separate classes for drafting, design, or engineering, and, therefore, I had no idea it was something I could even be interested in. Even now, when I tell people from my high school that I’m an engineer, they seem genuinely curious as to how I fell into that position because I didn’t seem the “type” in high school. For that reason, I do believe the best way to increase the number of women in engineering is to engage them while they’re young, and, then, when they’ve reached high school, giving them chances to take classes in different types of engineering — or even better, making it a part of the core curriculum.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
My current job changes each day. That’s why, out of all the different positions I’ve held here, this one is by far my favorite. I don’t design anymore, which I truly miss about my previous position, but in the quality engineering side of things, I get to make new processes, improve upon existing ones, and drive continuous improvement every day. I enjoy the idea of determining the root causes of issues and making our products better by implementing quality checks through the manufacturing process.
I love to fix things. So, some days, there may be zero quality issues that occur (those are great days). If a quality issue does occur, I’m tasked with determining why it occurred and correcting the issue. If it’s a machine issue, I’m tasked with finding a replacement part or making one, if it’s the less expensive route to take. Thankfully, manufacturing engineering and quality engineering often coincide with one another.
If I need to make a part for sheet metal, I can do that via Solidworks and can send it to our sheet metal side to have it made. We also have a 3D printer, and I’ve made several parts through that as a less expensive option as well. If there aren’t any quality issues for the day, I work on PPAPs for new projects for a large customer of ours.
In some scenarios I work with our product specialist to determine if the products our customers are designing will work for the application they’re specifically designed to address. We are also in the middle of redesigning our plant to make it more lean-oriented. We just hired a Six Sigma black belt to help lead the way, and I just finished my Six Sigma green belt certificate to help where I can. There is always something going on and something to do every day. I absolutely love it.
What drives/motivates you every day?
The fact that my job tasks change daily is a huge motivator. I thrive on deadlines and change. I just recently went on maternity leave, and I had about three major deadlines to finish before I left. Those days flew by so quickly because I was determined to finish everything before I left, so I didn’t leave anything left undone for my coworkers.
The changing of the plant layout and our new ERP system has been very fulfilling for me. Often, we must start from scratch and build the workflow from the ground up. It gives me a chance to do everything right the first time instead of taking the time to fix a problem that has been in our previous system for years. It also doesn’t hurt that I work for an amazing family. The company I work for was started by a husband and wife and their five sons. It’s a family-owned company, and their appreciation for all the employees is why I’ve stayed with them for almost 10 years.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
Everything. There is an endless array of possibilities for engineers. Engineering and technology, in general, is forever changing, and any time I’m given the opportunity to learn something new, I jump at it. Since receiving my Six Sigma green belt, I’m now determined to get my black belt.
Also, since mechanical and manufacturing engineers commonly work side by side, I would like to get a couple of mechanical engineering certifications as well. There is a plethora of FEA certifications online that I would like to do over the course of my career.
Although I do not have a degree in mechanical engineering, I hope that I could follow in my father’s footsteps and learn different aspects of that career by reading books and teaching myself new skills. Any goal I set for myself, I finish, and this is something I thrive on. Lastly, I plan to join the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) this year. SME is a very well-known society that could point me in the right direction on what next steps I can take and what courses I should take to continue to grow in my career.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I was a Girl Scout Gold Award recipient. I believe that someday there will be a time when humanity can’t rely on the internet, and we’ll have to rely on our own knowledge and strength to make it through. And when that happens, you better know how to start a fire from scratch, build a ship from just the items you have laying around, suck out the poison from a snake bite, and be able to tell the difference between poisonous berries and the ones you can eat. Thankfully, I feel that my experience as a Girl Scout and an engineer will help me if that time ever comes.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
My father, who I mentioned before, was my biggest supporter.
I have also had two teachers in my lifetime who I believe are the reason I am where I am today. My eighth-grade Algebra and 10th-grade Algebra II teacher, Mrs. Schmitt, was the reason I started on the path of STEM. She made math fun and interesting. Going into college, all I wanted to do was be just like her. Then, in college, my AutoCAD and Solid Edge professor, Mr. Dudley, made each of those classes compelling and forged the path that led me to where I am today. I would also like to thank my first boss here at Unico Inc., Craig Messmer. He is the vice president of engineering, and if it wasn’t for him hiring me and allowing me to pursue my master’s degree, I would not have been given the opportunities that I have. My newest mentor is Ken Tharp. He is the Six Sigma black belt that was just hired to incorporate lean principles on our shop floor. I am eager to gain as much knowledge as I can from him over this next year.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
Be bold and brave. Don’t be shy, and don’t let various projects or people intimidate you. I was very shy before college and was able to open up as I got older. I believe the engineering classes in college aided in the ability to grow as a female engineer. I became friends with males in my class and that helped me get more comfortable with myself and the skills that I could bring to the table.
Also, if you do feel like you are being stepped over for a promotion that you deserve or if you feel disrespected, do not hesitate to inform your superior. My boss had no idea what was going on out on the floor until I said something to him. If you are just starting out, I think it’s a great idea to join an organization like the SWE, as it’s a great steppingstone for women engineers.
To conclude, set a goal and work toward achieving it. Communicate your desires and remove barriers as needed by working with your superiors and sponsors.