stem-girl-tinkering

From Math Nerd to Manufacturing CEO

How a STEM kid found her calling.

“Do the math.”

These are three words I heard countless times throughout my childhood. Though, admittedly, as the daughter of a high school math teacher, they were hard to avoid.

The fact is, math has always played a pervasive, foundational role in my life.

When I was a fourth grader, my father had me correcting high school math tests—red pen, answer key and all. In high school, I joined a team of fellow unabashed math nerds in competing for state and regional math championships. At Notre Dame University, my fascination with math and its myriad applications led me to pursue a math major and landed me in computer applications classes (long before computers were ever small enough to rest on our laps or fit in our pockets).

My affinity for all things numbers pointed me in the direction of Chicago Booth School of Business – heralded as the ultimate “quant” business school – and ultimately gave me the confidence to pursue a career in business.

Those three simple words – “do the math” – ignited in me a passion for STEM that guided my academic upbringing and turbo-charged my career. The path I chose that eventually led me to become CEO of one of the largest manufacturing companies in the country began by doing the math.

My story shouldn’t be so unique.

Manufacturing Needs STEM. And Vice Versa.

Reflecting on my path to becoming a CEO in manufacturing, an industry often overlooked for its pioneering of cutting-edge technology and embrace of STEM, I realize there is so much we can do to champion the immense opportunities a career in manufacturing can offer to STEM-educated women and men. STEM is the foundation of our globally interconnected, digital world, but it is also the cornerstone of manufacturing.

We must do more to address the troubling misconception that STEM-educated women and men are not best suited for the manufacturing industry, and vice versa. Not only am I living proof that, in fact, the opposite is true, but I am also here to tell you that manufacturing is on the cusp of becoming the new “it” industry.

I didn’t start my career in manufacturing, but there’s a reason I ended up here: I was inspired by a transformation taking place in the industry.

As a consultant on the outside of the industry looking in, I saw more and more manufacturing companies beginning to shift their focus toward designing innovative products and implementing the modern technologies we see industry-wide today. In that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that change.

Now, innovation – and STEM – are everywhere in this industry.

While manufacturers may lack the cache of a digital brand like Alphabet, Amazon or Apple, U.S. manufacturers are harnessing the coolest, most cutting-edge technologies to solve customers’ toughest problems. Data analytics, automation, 3D printing, open sourcing of innovation, drones, artificial intelligence. You name it, odds are, it’s being done in the manufacturing industry.

At my company, USG Corporation, we’re taking our license to innovate very seriously. Our Corporate Innovation Center boasts a team of scientists with a range of advanced degrees. Chemists and engineers are hard at work developing more sustainable products that use fewer of our earth’s natural resources, while optical physicists perfect laser sensor technology to control how our products move through the assembly line with greater speed and efficiency.

We have also embarked on a larger $300 million, four-year investment in advanced manufacturing to ensure our people, technology and equipment are working together in a highly-skilled environment to produce the best products for our customers.

What’s Next?

In August of this year, I was disheartened by survey results from Emerson’s fourth annual STEM Survey, which showed that two out of every five Americans believe the STEM worker shortage is at crisis levels. That’s a problem, but I am optimistic that manufacturers can be a part of the solution.

As we seek to inspire the next generation of manufacturers, we cannot afford to continue accepting the status quo. We must encourage those who are excited about a career in STEM that they can find a home in the manufacturing industry every bit as easily as they can in Silicon Valley.

How do we accomplish this? By engaging with, educating and inspiring those in the very communities where we serve and operate.

We should be sending manufacturing professionals into classrooms to facilitate trainings and educational programs, offering access to our shop floors and research facilities, and deepening existing partnerships with top universities and research institutions. The benefits of investing in and preparing our future workforce simply cannot be overstated.

Sitting around my childhood dining room table, red pen in hand, helping to correct equations I was not yet old enough to understand, I had no way of knowing the eventual twists and turns of my career. It is my hope that the industry I now know and love is in a similar position: unaware of the opportunities that lie before us, if only we’re willing to do the math. 

Jennifer F. Scanlon is president and chief executive officer, USG Corporation. Scanlon’s previous roles with USG include president, International; president, L&W Supply Corporation; chief information officer and chairman of the board for USG Boral Building Products.

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