Women in Manufacturing

Making Manufacturing a Career

Tanya Cook, cigarette manufacturing director for Richmond-based Philip Morris USA, worked her way up from the floor as a manufacturing engineer back in the days of “dirty” hands-on parts leading to managers and skilled technicians to manufacture products in a clean air-conditioned environment. David Soyka reports on how Cook succeeds in getting young people, especially women, interested in highly challenging and rewarding manufacturing careers. And that can actually be fun!

Tanya Cook has taken some heat on the job. Quite literally, working at a forging plant in the 1980s, she knows firsthand how manufacturing was a dirty job. Times have changed. Today, as director of cigarette manufacturing for Philip Morris USA, Cook oversees some thousand salaried and hourly employees who work three shifts, five days a week in a much different manufacturing environment. It’s less harsh, involving no hands-on assembly, but requiring more technical know-how and having more of a say in how things are done. What hasn’t changed, though, Cook says is, “The excitement of seeing all the moving parts come together to make something.” Moreover, she emphasizes that the key determinant to that excitement—and what ultimately determines how well and how efficiently that product is made—isn’t machines, but the people who run them.

“I learned very early in my career to listen to the people on the floor,” she says. “They are the ones doing the job day in and day out. They know what’s really going on. No machine or process flow can replace that kind of knowledge.”

Cook’s knowledge comprises nearly 30 years as a manager, project leader and engineer spent entirely in the manufacturing industry. So in speaking to Cook you get a clear picture of not only where manufacturing has been and where it is going, but the obstacles that still exist for many people, women in particular, to attain the same achievement.

While Cook got her start in the auto industry, working as an electrical engineer for General Motors as her first job after earning a bachelor’s of engineering from Vanderbilt University (she later completed an MBA from Montreat College). From 1984 to 1987 she worked on programmable logic- controllers and power systems and robotics in a harsh forging plant environment. It was almost like being on another planet.

“We had to wear special clothing, including . helmets, safety shoes, ear plugs and safety glasses,” she remembers. “The forging work performed then was a mostly manual process that employed very high temperatures to heat and press steel into connecting rods and rod caps, and other car parts. It was a harsh, dirty place to work where sparks were actually flying around all the time. Having a woman on the floor in what was then a highly male-dominated environment was more than a little unusual.”

Cooks says that while at first she was initially viewed with a little suspicion, she learned a very important lesson in how to relate with people on the line. “I was working on the control systems. I wasn’t trying to do their jobs. I was trying to understand how they did their jobs,” she recalls. “There’s a natural suspicion of people who are new and have a degree who might think they know more than the employees on the floor. As soon as everyone realized I was there to learn from them, and not tell them what to do, we got along fine.”

Forging Forward

She took her first-hand experience of life on the factory floor during a particularly troubled time for the auto industry and built on it to start a lifelong career at Philip Morris USA. Why didn’t she choose instead to forge ahead with GM?

“I had actually worked first at Philip Morris during college summer breaks as an intern,” Cook notes. “The job was in Kentucky and it was a way for me to go home, work in my field and earn money. And it got me interested in manufacturing.”

Philip Morris was not hiring when she got out of school, but after three years at GM an opportunity arose to take on an engineering role at the cigarette company. She was later promoted to a senior project leader. She was primarily responsible for leading and developing technical personnel to support the primary processing departments, managing the department budget and improving operational efficiency. “I went from being an engineer to a manager of engineers,” Cook says. And she never looked back from there, assuming various management and leadership positions at Philip Morris USA.

“It’s been a great experience. I got to travel overseas and meet and work with a number of interesting people. And I had the opportunity to work with all the latest technologies,” she says. “It was the best of both worlds—I got to learn about how people work and how machines work, and how they both can work together.”

In 2011, Cook took on her current role as director of cigarette manufacturing at the Richmond plant. “As cigarette volume declined, we consolidated all domestic operations into one facility by taking all the best practices developed over the years to continue to be successful in this industry,” says Cook.

Constant Improvement

This is not to say that everyone can sit back and relax. “Every manufacturing operation has to continuously improve, to constantly figure out how to be more productive and efficient,” Cook says. “To accomplish this, we implement the usual manufacturing tools— lean, 5S, PDCA (Plan Do Check Act)—but above all we talk to the people on the floor. Many of our innovations are the direct result of worker suggestions on how we can do things better.”

Technology, of course, has revolutionized manufacturing, automating many tasks and making the workplace safer and more efficient than back in the day when Cook started her career. But, she cautions, there’s a danger in getting too enamored with whatever is the latest and greatest.

“Technology is moving so fast it is hard to keep up,” Cook says. “Part of my job is to stay on top of what’s happening. The more important part of that is to make the right decision about what technologies work best for our business. Just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best thing or, even if it is, appropriate to an individual situation. Whatever it is you’re going to spend money on has got to pay off; it’s got to take you to a new level of performance. The one thing you don’t want to do is spend a lot of money on new technology only to find out it doesn’t really work the way it was intended.”

What is one key way to find out if the technology is right? If you hadn’t already guessed by now, Cook advises consulting with the people who are actually going to use it.


It’s Not the Old Workplace

Of course, the rap on technology is that it eliminates jobs. It’s equally true; however, that technology creates not only new jobs, but interesting jobs that require new skills. Cook sees it as part of her mission to dispel the popular notion that a manufacturing job is taking a bolt from one place and putting it on someplace else.

“You can make an excellent living in manufacturing,” Cook points out. “I have a son and I well know a parent’s inclination is to push their children to go to college to get a better job. But the fact is there are a lot of good paying jobs that require technical training but not necessarily a traditional college education— welders, electricians, mechanics— where you can actually make more money than the average wage earner. And these aren’t repetitious, boring kinds of dead-end jobs, but highly skilled positions that offer challenging work with career development paths. Today robots take a lot of the drudgery out of assembly line work, but at the same time they require skilled people to program and operate them.”

And while over the years women in manufacturing— and industry in general—are not the anomaly they were back in Cook’s GM days. “When I started, people wouldn’t call me by my name. I was ‘that gal’ or ‘sweetheart’,” she remembers. “Today, of course, that’s totally not acceptable. From that standpoint, at least, we’ve come a long way. There’s more respect for women in the workplace than there was when I started. Though, personally, I found that once you prove yourself that you are technically qualified to do your job, people are more accepting. What helped me in particular were my relationship skills that I was truly curious in learning about how other people worked and how I could help them work better.”

But she adds there’s more that can be done to interest women in a manufacturing career. Essential to this is outreach, particularly with trade schools, community colleges and universities. Which is why Cook is part of a team that works directly with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to educate students about manufacturing and possibly interest them in careers at Philip Morris USA.

“It’s not just about attending job fairs,” Cook points out. “We have an established presence on campus where we share resources with the school and meet with their top talent. We spend a lot of time building our brand on campus. By the time job fairs come around, students are already familiar with Philip Morris USA and what we can offer them in terms of career opportunities. In general, what we’re trying to do is open the door for people to see who we are and what we do. And, of course, we want to learn what we can do to help them, as well, which is a part of giving back.”


Work Can Be Fun

Another thing that has changed in manufacturing, particularly for younger people just entering the workforce, Cook notes, is not just the increased role of women changing views of what it is to work. “Employers in general are finding there is a higher churn among people under 30. Part of that is because companies no longer guarantee lifetime employment. Which has helped create the attitude of, I’ll stay here three to five years, learn some new skills and then move on to another job,” Cook observes. “No one thinks of spending a career with one employer.

“To keep people interested in staying with us, of course you have to offer competitive salaries, good working conditions and career advancements. But younger workers in particular are looking for things like flexible work schedules and work-life balance. They are also more attracted to environments that offer an element of fun. We offer a variety of programs ranging from 5K runs and softball and golf teams where workers can engage with each other socially in healthy activities,” Cook says.

Again, it comes down to establishing good relationships with fellow workers. With Tanya Cook as a role model, a lot more people might be considering manufacturing careers  at Philip Morris USA.

Headquartered in state capital Richmond, Henrico County, VA since 2004, Philip Morris USA, an Altria company, has manufactured here since 1929. As the leading cigarette manufacturer in the country using U.S. grown tobacco as its primary ingredient, Philip Morris has provided thousands of manufacturing jobs to American workers. Maker of Marlboro, the number one cigarette brand in all 50 states with a 44 percent retail share in 2015—larger than the next 10 largest brands combined. The Philip Morris Production System (PM-PS) is built on processes and organizational structure designed to deliver system-wide flexibility, innovation and continuous improved performance, with the ultimate objective of manufacturing the highest-quality products at the best possible cost. By upgrading lighting with more efficient LED lighting that includes motion sensing, dimming and energy management controls across the manufacturing campus, the company has reduced consumption by 3.5 million kilowatt hours, representing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost savings. Richmond processing facilities are ISO 9001 registered. Located in south Richmond just off of I-95N, the manufacturing center comprises 2.3 million square feet across multiple buildings on a 200-acre site, making the largest cigarette manufacturing operation in the country. Currently producing more than 400 million cigarettes a day—half of all cigarettes sold domestically, with capacity to make 140 billion cigarettes a year, it is the largest cigarette producer worldwide.

© 2016 Industry VirginiaTM