Role models on a mission: Women in manufacturing aim to increase the number of females in field

Crystal Malec’s manufacturing career started out of need.

As a single mom, she took a night shift job at a manufacturing plant for income. She quickly found out that the night shift wasn’t for her, but the environment was.

Malec, an Army veteran, moved from the floor to manufacturing engineering. She said she realized she had the uncanny ability to see how all components of operations worked — and to understand how they worked together.

“It was like I was a conductor to an orchestra,” she said. “I was hooked. Working with all the different disciplines of operation and seeing everything come together — to me, it was magic.

“I have loved it ever since, and have been doing it ever since.”

Malec began touching as many aspects of the manufacturing process as possible, trying to figure out where she wanted to land.

Last year, Cartridge Actuated Devices in Fairfield reached out and offered her a job as a master planner. In this role, she helps manufacture a large line of products that helps to save lives within the military, aerospace and gas industries.

She also serves as a role model.

In an industry that still is 70% male, Malec is changing the narrative.

This new look to the sector was on display last week at the 11th annual “Made in NJ” Manufacturing Day at iPlay America in Freehold.

A panel of women in manufacturing offered insight into their career journeys. And, while their paths into the sector were all vastly different, they shared some keys to success that they hope can help other women entering this dynamic world.

Constantina Meis, the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program‘s community relations manager, moderated the panel. She was joined by Malec, Micaela Alvarez (director of operations & engineering at Universal Nutrition), Caroline Egbelu (founder and CEO of Healthy Enhanced Foods), Hayley Katz (materials engineer, advanced manufacturing and flexible hybrid electronics, Army – Picatinny Arsenal) and Cristina Prado Lopez (manufacturing site leader, Zimmer Biomet).

All stressed the need and value of having mentors — and a support system.

Egbelu: The CEO of Rockaway-based Health Enhanced Foods, Egbelu became involved with the manufacturing industry by accident.

She said her family’s health drove her to use her kitchen as a lab to create healthy baking formulas that would help her family thrive. She worked constantly in her kitchen to come up with healthy baking flours, as her husband suffered from not being able to tolerate gluten.

After a while, Egbelu achieved a degree in agriculture economics. Over the years, she also owned and managed a group of diverse businesses, including a comprehensive financial planning operation, college funding organization and a real estate investors company.

When she moved to New Jersey approximately 10 years ago, she saw the Garden State as the perfect place to move her kitchen products to the grocery store shelves. She is now a food entrepreneur and manufacturer of all types of Ketogenic and gluten-free flours and baking mixes.

Prado Lopez: An immigrant from Peru, she was told by her family that she had to be a doctor. While going to school, she took an opportunity with a manufacturing co-op. After shadowing some physicians in another co-op, she returned to the manufacturing industry because she realized that is where she felt the biggest spark.

Lopez further ignited her passion straight out of college, when she interned for a company that was the only one in the world that manufactured biomedical devices that were specific to life-saving. Feeling that she was saving the world with the products produced in the company she worked for was all Lopez needed to succeed.

Alvarez: Her tale has an unusual twist. Her mother told her not to be an engineer, because “men do not like it when women tell them what to do.”

At an early age, however, Alvarez said she knew it was what she was called to do.

Her father was an engineer who emigrated from Cuba. He was so good at what he did that the Navy would fly products into his facility to be repaired. It was at that facility that Alvarez’s curiosity was sparked. She said she was just 5 when she began asking questions about everything that was being done and made at his plant. She was allowed to roam — and learn.

As the only female to graduate in her biomedical and mechanical engineering class, Alvarez took her first real job as a global engineer for Procter & Gamble and continued to excel through hard work and a support system that continues to have her back.

Katz: She has been a materials engineer for the past six years, serving at Picatinny. Her career was born from her time within Rutgers University’s workforce development program. Before that, Katz said it was her support system at home that really kick-started her interest in manufacturing.

Katz’s parents were always supportive of anything that helped to challenge her mindset: Girl Scouts, and other events that would allow her to use her hands and be innovative.

At Rutgers, she was part of a robotics team and came back to be a coach and then a mentor. It’s where her passion for materials science engineering took off, and she wants to be there for others. Even when she felt like quitting, her support system was there to keep her focused on what she was really passionate about.

All five women said they have made it their mission to help the next generation of females in manufacturing.

Alvarez wants to ensure they have a voice.

“We are making a tremendous effort for STEM,” she said. “But, in order to keep someone interested, they need to feel important, and they need to feel engaged and heard.”

Katz stressed the importance of giving opportunities to women engineers to help balance a predominantly male career field.

“There’s a need for the next generation of scientists and engineers, and this should include opportunities for young women,” she said. “This will help them see other women in this career field and, ultimately, see themselves in those same roles.

“We need people to get involved and become advocates for these young women.”