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Engineering Woman: Lori Garrett of Eastman Chemical

lori garrettFrom her early, trying days in construction to a challenging yet rewarding position as manager of the Eastman Valve Shop at the Eastman Chemical plant in Kingsport, TN, Lori Garrett’s career path shows there are no barriers—gender or otherwise—when you “go for it” with all your heart.

Garrett is a fourth-generation Eastman employee who has been with the company since she graduated from high school, more than 18 years ago. And even earlier, she worked in the family business, at Burger King during high school and then in construction, where she was the youngest worker and the only woman out in the field.

She started with Eastman in an entry-level position that required her to sweep out electrical rooms, but right from the beginning she showed initiative. Garrett organized a cross-functional team for maintaining directories on electrical panels and developed a computerized process for doing so. The system decreased update time from a minimum of 30 days to a maximum of 30 minutes, yielded a tangible cost saving of $1 million in the first year, and improved equipment reliability through the plant.

After a probationary period at Eastman, she moved up to helper with the maintenance crews repairing manufacturing equipment, and then took a test for Control Systems Mechanic. She passed and was enrolled in a three-year training program. With that under her belt, Garrett became a relief supervisor, “and then I went into a planning position and planned for electrical work for several different crews,” she says. Then came a promotion to crew manager.

Up to that time Eastman had outsourced valve repair to a contractor that kept a facility in the plant, but quality was an issue; when it came time to evaluate alternatives, Garrett proposed that valve repair be insourced back to Eastman as a core competency. In January of 2007 her idea was accepted, and she was put in charge of the shop.

Getting the shop up and running was a challenge, she says: “We didn’t have people hired, we didn’t have a facility ready, and we didn’t have test equipment.” She interviewed 32 people in eight days, and chose eight. But a staff can’t maintain and repair valves without tools, and they didn’t have a test stand. The fastest delivery time quoted for this equipment was 32 weeks, she explains, but they didn’t want to wait that long. Fortunately Eastman has a facility they call the Big Shop, which has a U stamp and several other certifications that authorizes it to build pressure vessels, so Garrett’s valve shop got its test stand in 3-1/2 weeks.

Next on the agenda? Getting the shop VR certified, which was required in order to repair ASME valves, and 71 days after the start of the project they achieved this milestone—which may well be a record.

The shop has been in operation for 18 months now and has been, in her words, “incredibly successful.” With a crew of eight, it takes care of all the thousands of valves on site: relief valves, conservation vents, manual valves and control valves in the plant.

As you might expect, she has her crew well organized, and the shop has what many don’t — a way to keep customers from coming into the facility and wandering around. Garrett assigned one employee to customer service, in a role similar to that of the counter person at an auto parts store. Now everyone knows where to go and whom to see, which has helped to build tremendous confidence in the customer base.

Garrett has nothing but praise for her people. “We really are very blessed to have the caliber of folks that we have here.”

She also recognizes the value of continual training and has set up a formal in-house program for her staff. Some training is conducted by Eastman personnel with the appropriate experience, while vendors visit the facility to provide in-depth, product-specific training. And Garrett is continuing her education as well, seeking a degree in industrial engineering as work and family schedules permit.

We wondered if Garrett had run into any gender-based problems over the years. Yes, she says, but not at Eastman. Back in her construction days, she was sometimes put in situations where she was expected to fail, but got through those tough situations — mostly by doing a better job than was expected. Still, as she diplomatically puts it, “it’s unfortunate you have to show somebody your abilities before they trust that you can do your job.”

Getting young women interested in pursuing a career in industry is certainly a challenge, but Garrett feels a good way to attract more women is to help people understand what an industrial job is all about. “I think a lot of people do not know,” she observes. Toward that end, she participates with a group at Eastman called Workforce Planning, which does presentations for eighth graders and other students. “It’s nice to be able to go out and look people in the eye and say, ‘this is what it takes to get a job, and this is what it takes to keep a job, this is what we’re really looking for, and this is what actually takes place here,’” she relates.

The company also puts on educational fairs with valves on display and pictures of vessels, welders, instrumentation personnel and plant operators, and how to run a process to make a chemical. It’s a great way to talk with kids and pique their interests in an industrial career.

But students aren’t the only ones that need training. It turns out, Garrett says, that educating teachers and guidance counselors is as big a job as getting to the students. “You almost have to train them first and then get that information to the kids and to their parents.”

When asked what advice she has for young women thinking of pursuing a career in manufacturing, she replied, “Go for it. Do it on purpose, and do it with heart.”

As for her own career at Eastman, Garrett says it has been very rewarding: “I am currently doing the most challenging, difficult job I have ever had in my life with the greatest satisfaction, and have been amazed at the capabilities of the people that I work with, and how you can look back on the impossible and think, I can’t believe we did that.”

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