African American engineers: small in number, big in impact
African American engineers must encourage students to consider STEM careers.”
– O’Dealya Price, Itron
Representation among African Americans in engineering is low, but efforts by NSBE and others are in the spotlight
By Adriene Marshall
Working in a wide variety of industries, African American engineers are making important contributions at a time when there is tremendous need. According to statistics from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME, www.nacme.org), more than 128,000 African Americans held engineering jobs in 2009, earning higher average salaries than African Americans in other jobs.
However, this number represents only 5 percent of the 2.5 million engineers in the engineering workforce. Only 3 percent of African American engineers are managers and fewer than 3 percent are tenured or tenure track college professors.
“The five percent figure is unacceptable,” says Carl B. Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE, www.nsbe.org). “NSBE’s goal is parity. Blacks make up 13.1 percent of the U.S. population; therefore, we believe we should be 13.1 percent or more of the engineering workforce.”
Mack says one solution to improving this number is to expand the pipeline to engineering careers for African American students in grades kindergarten through twelve, and in college.
“Our organization is contributing to this effort through programs such as our Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) Academy,” Mack says. In this program, NSBE collegiate members teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) concepts and skills to children across the country from demographic groups that are underrepresented in engineering.
“We’re also making gains through our national NSBE retention program, in which NSBE collegiate members focus on academic excellence and on finishing their engineering degree programs,” Mack adds.
Darrell Comena: lifecycle engineering at General Dynamics Electric Boat
Darrell Comena is a senior logistical engineer for General Dynamics Electric Boat (EB; Groton, CT), providing lifecycle support for U.S. Navy submarines. In addition, Comena is president of EB’s Black Engineering Council.
“On my work detail, we interact with the engineering, design and materials departments and with government personnel to ensure that the ship is outfitted with the equipment and parts the crew needs. We also make sure the layout and design are functional without interfering with the mission of the ship,” Comena says. “We were recently tasked with outfitting washrooms and creating separate living quarters for women officers now that they are part of the submarine forces.”
Comena, who has a twenty-five-year history with EB, was raised on a small farm in St. Francisville, Louisiana, and recalls a time when there were still plenty of racial tensions. Luckily, Comena had strong role models surrounding him.
“My grandfather taught me the value of hard work, and my older sisters were already attending college when I finished high school,” he says. “My high school math teacher had a great influence on my career path. She was diligent and forward thinking, and made her students want to study hard.”
Comena graduated from Southern University Agricultural and Mechanical College (Baton Rouge, LA) in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering technology. After graduation, he worked briefly at a nuclear power plant before accepting a position at EB’s Quonset Point, Rhode Island facility. After several years in the engineering drawing and parts department, he came to Groton to work in the nuclear engineering department and learned about integrated logistics support systems.
Proud founder and advocate
Comena and his mentors founded EB’s Black Engineering Council networking group in 1992. Comena has been the organization’s president since 2005.
“I work with human resources to recruit and retain African American and other minorities, with great success,” Comena says. “Each year for the past seventeen years, for example, we have given scholarships to African American high school seniors.” Comena notes that EB recruits students from historically black colleges and universities, and that he himself has helped recruit students from his alma mater, Southern University.
“EB is very supportive of the Black Engineering Council because everyone recognizes the value it brings to the organization,” Comena says.
Hiring is strong at EB
EB employs engineers with electrical, mechanical, civil/structural, aerospace, computer and nuclear backgrounds, as well as ocean and marine engineers and naval architects, says Robert Nardone, vice president of human resources and administration. “We have been hiring 200 to 400 engineers a year for several years, and we expect to continue hiring within that range, barring disruption to our programs as a result of federal budget uncertainties,” says Nardone.
“The future of General Dynamics Electric Boat depends on our ability to develop a diverse workforce with many different perspectives to help resolve complex engineering challenges. Diversity drives innovation, and innovation is the reason Electric Boat has succeeded for more than 110 years.”
Glenessa Gordon oversees operation analysis at the NY/NJ Port Authority
Glenessa Gordon is manager of operation analysis for the Newark, NJ engineering department office of the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey (PANYNJ; New York, NY). She’s been working at the organization for twenty-three years. Her responsibilities include creating procedure manuals, producing financial summaries, and recommending allocation of resources. “I interact with staff within and outside of my division to ensure that we are within budget,” she says.
Gordon grew up in Petersburg, VA. Her interest in engineering began in childhood as she explored the acres of land her grandparents owned. “I was an outdoors girl and I took advantage of the space,” Gordon says. “My brother and I used whatever resources we had to build miniature roads and neighborhoods.”
After she took her SAT exams in high school, NACME sent Gordon material on engineering and engineering careers. That caught her interest and solidified her focus. She started her studies at the University of Virginia, then transferred to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT; Newark, NJ) for her 1986 BSCE. “Civil engineering, more than any other engineering specialty, has a connection to people and the world we live in,” Gordon believes.
Building tunnels, terminals and a resume
The next thirteen years were busy ones for Gordon. Right after graduation, she accepted a position at PANYNJ doing construction and project management for tunnels, bridges and terminals, including work at Kennedy Airport, the Pavonia/Newport PATH station, the George Washington and Staten Island bridges, and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. She returned to NJIT for her 1993 MSCE. After that, she took her curiosity about the business aspect of construction to New York University, where she earned a 1998 MBA.
“An MBA is not just about operations and economics; it also teaches you about yourself. It helps improve the skills you need to be a leader,” she says.
Gordon left PANYNJ for three years to work at a technology solutions company, but returned in 2002 as a contracts engineer. In 2004 she became the manager of operations analysis.
“My career has followed the path of my personal growth, which was not necessarily a path that was planned or charted when I first started out,” Gordon says. “However, I’ve been able to seize opportunities as they come, and as I’m ready to tackle them.”
Senior track engineer James Lewis, Jr helps Amtrak fulfill new projects
James K. Lewis, Jr, a senior track engineer for Amtrak (also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Washington, DC), lives and works in Jackson, MI. The Michigan Department of Transportation, which recently acquired 135 miles of railroad from Chicago to Detroit from Norfolk Southern Railway Company, contracted Amtrak to upgrade track and signal infrastructure, and Lewis is a team leader for this effort.
“I support our team by planning, scheduling and implementing new construction projects,” Lewis says. “That involves acquiring equipment and materials needed for the jobs, setting up the manpower required, and establishing roadway worker protection for contractors.”
Lewis has worked in several Amtrak locations around the country since he started there in 2009. His first year was spent in Philadelphia as an engineering management associate, learning about the business of Amtrak’s engineering department. He also worked in the finance, customer relations and ticket sales offices, and even the kitchens where the chefs prepare meals on the trains.
Lewis notes that Amtrak’s training program is essential to the engineering aspects of the job. “There are only a couple of colleges in the country that teach railroading, so these are things you probably didn’t learn at school,” he says.
After he finished his training, Lewis moved to Chicago, IL to work as a track engineer and then to New Haven, CT, where he was a night-shift manager. His current project is scheduled to be completed within the next three or four years, and Lewis is prepared to relocate again.
Finding the right engineering fit
Growing up in Wilmington, NC, Lewis showed an aptitude for drawing. With the encouragement of a high school teacher, he took architectural classes in high school. He received his 2004 associates degree in architecture from Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington. He went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, producing designs for the division responsible for Atlantic coastal waterways. But he found that he didn’t enjoy working at a desk, and enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (Greensboro), where he earned a 2007 bachelors degree in construction management.
He was introduced to Amtrak through a job fair at the college, and has found working for the company a rewarding experience. “During my time at Amtrak, there has been a strong commitment from politicians and customers to high-speed rail,” Lewis says. “Each project I’ve worked on has been a stepping stone and learning experience for the next.”
Opportunities abound for diverse engineers
Amtrak has a strong demand for professionals from a variety of engineering disciplines, including industrial, mechanical, civil and electrical, according to Uzma Burki, director of corporate organizational effectiveness, talent acquisition, leadership development and training.
“We’re updating many of our programs, policies and tools to support our company’s five-year strategic plan,” says Burki. “Diversity and inclusion will play a key role in this journey.”
“Amtrak considers the full range of differences among our employees, including groups differentiated by gender, race and ethnicity, as well as LGBT employees and people with veteran and disability status,” says Adam Rosenberg, leader of organizational development, talent management, and diversity and inclusion. “By emphasizing inclusion, we’re communicating that we value the broad range of perspectives and experiences our employees bring to their jobs and to Amtrak.”
O’Dealya Price tests smart grid solutions for Itron
As software quality assurance engineer in the Raleigh, NC office of glo-bal technology company Itron (Liberty Lake, WA), O’Dealya Price focuses exclusively on products associated with the partnership between Itron and Cisco Systems. The two companies have developed an innovative smart grid communication infrastructure to be delivered as part of Itron’s OpenWay smart grid meter solution.
“I test Itron solutions related to wireless communication, traditional networking, and the next generation of IPV6 networking technologies, all in support of a smarter power grid and a smarter critical system infrastructure,” Price says. “It’s part of a burgeoning industry called the ‘Internet of Things.’”
Price grew up in Las Vegas, NV and received her 2007 BSEE from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. After graduation, she worked for a Las Vegas national security management and contracting company where she focused on electrical construction project estimation. Then she moved to Georgia to work as a systems engineer for an electronic products and systems manufacturer in the above-surface minerals and mining department.
In 2010, her interest in the smart grid industry led her to Itron. She began as an applications engineer in product marketing, helping salespeople with technical proposals, and participating in trade shows and conferences that showcase OpenWay products.
A message to the young, bright and diverse
Price believes that an important role of African American engineers is to get young people interested in the field. “Because the demand for technical jobs is growing, it’s vitally important that African American engineers reach back into their communities to encourage students to consider careers in the STEM fields,” she stresses. “That’s why I’m involved in the professional chapter of NSBE here in the Research Triangle area of NC. There’s a large population of engineers who are going to retire soon. Our future breakthroughs in technology are dependent on the next generation.”
Itron employs EEs, computer scientists, MEs and RF engineers, says Leslie Fergison, North America compliance and talent acquisition manager. “The experience level for engineering professionals ranges from entry level to experienced principal.
“Itron relies on the diversity of its more than 8,000 employees to help customers responsibly manage the delivery and use of energy and water,” Fergison says. “At Itron, we contribute as diverse individuals and win as a unified team by sharing knowledge and opinions.”
Industrial engineer Janae Branch: management rotations at Halliburton
Janae Branch participates in the supply chain management program at Halliburton (Houston, TX), one of the world’s largest oilfield services organizations. In this rotational two-and-a-half-year program, Branch is assigned to a different project every six months. So far, she has worked at manufacturing facilities in Houston, Alvarado and Conroe, TX.
“When I begin a project, I learn what the problems are and make data-driven decisions on how to solve them,” Branch explains. “One of the misconceptions people have about engineers is that we are not very people-oriented. But at Halliburton, we work with one another, build a team, and brainstorm the best solutions together.”
The advantage of a head start in STEM
Branch attended a magnet high school in Houston that specialized in engineering, “so even before I went to college, I had a robust background in math, science and applied engineering,” she says. She enrolled at the University of Oklahoma. As an undergrad, she interned at an energy company in Dallas, and at Halliburton. When she got her degree in industrial engineering in 2011, she accepted a fulltime position with Halliburton.
Branch is pleased with the training she’s receiving and is already discussing with her managers where she sees herself in the next five years.
“I’ve seen many minorities in engineering from all different backgrounds being hired,” Branch notes. “When I develop teams, it’s helpful that we all think differently, so it’s great to see the diversity that is coming into the company.”
Diversity is crucial at Halliburton
“Halliburton hires all disciplines of engineers,” says Cindy Bigner, senior director of global diversity and inclusion. “With about 9,500 job openings around the world, we are recruiting and hiring every day.”
Halliburton has more than 73,000 employees, representing 140 nationalities in approximately 80 countries. “Diversity and inclusion are crucial to our success,” explains Bigner. “To surpass our competitors, we need every possible advantage, and we cannot do that if we’re missing opportunities to recruit, develop and retain the best talent, whoever has it, wherever we find it.”
EE James V. Watkins translates Army experience to Norfolk Southern
At Norfolk Southern Corporation (Norfolk, VA), James V. Watkins is an electrical engineer. His duties include system testing, defect resolutions, system configuration, system training and file validation.
“My main responsibility is to be a subject matter expert for positive train control systems,” Watkins says. Positive train control (PTC) systems combine information about a train’s location with information from various signal devices. This information allows the train to travel safely, and lets the system apply automatic controls to ensure that the train stays within the appropriate area, he explains. “I research defects to determine if the vendor needs to make corrections to the system, if additional testing is needed, or if specifications need changing.”
Watkins joined the U.S. Army immediately after graduating from high school in Cairo, IL. He served for a total of thirteen years: five on active duty, including an eighteen-month deployment in Iraq, and eight years in the National Guard. In the Army he worked as a cable systems installer, network switching systems operator, and telecommunications operations chief. After his honorable discharge from active duty, he spent two years at a telecommunications company as an install/repair technician before he was laid off due to budget cuts.
A new strategy for success
“That’s when I decided I needed a college degree that could sustain me intellectually as well as financially,” Watkins remembers. He enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and got a 2008 bachelors in electronic systems technologies, specializing in networks. “I believe my degree and my experience in the Army led Norfolk Southern to recruit me for employment,” he says.
Watkins started as a management trainee at Norfolk Southern in 2009. Since he finished the thirteen-month training program, he has already been promoted three times.
“I know the career I chose was the right one for me. I have a good job and work with great people for a great company,” he says.
Engineers welcomed at Norfolk Southern
“Almost all engineers can find a place at Norfolk Southern,” says David Cobbs, assistant vice president for diversity and equal employment opportunity. “Our most urgent need these days is in the electrical engineering discipline.”
Cobbs adds that Norfolk Southern is looking for additional engineers with backgrounds in communications and signals, as well as civil, mechanical and industrial engineers. He anticipates a steady need for the next few years.
“The more diversity that exists within a workforce, the greater the likelihood of fostering the creativity and innovation that is needed to adapt to changing environments and improve business performance,” Cobbs says. “Our company performs on a world stage, and in this highly competitive environment we need to keep a broad range of opinions and outlooks if we are to deliver for our shareholders, shippers and employees.”
Armond Lincoln travels the world as a 3M engineer
Armond Lincoln is an electrical control systems engineer for the 3M Company (St. Paul, MN). Though his work takes him around the world, Lincoln most recently worked on a project in Midland, MI upgrading an outdated production line at a 3M facility.
“This project will bring the oldest production line in the plant up to the same standard as the newest line. With some of the additions that we put in, the line will produce several new products that it couldn’t handle before,” Lincoln says.
His duties at 3M have ranged from analyzing electrical prints and design specifications and buying parts and equipment, to altering code or writing entirely new programs for production systems. His department provides support to 3M plants around the world, which has given him the opportunity to work as far away as Singapore.
“My first project in Singapore was one of the biggest projects I’ve ever worked on,” Lincoln says. “We had to build a brand new 3M facility. And I had to learn about a new culture. It was a great opportunity.”
College program for high schoolers draws young engineers
Lincoln was born and raised in Flint, MI, where Kettering University hosts the Academically Interested Minds program for high school juniors. Lincoln participated, and spent five weeks on campus during the summer taking classes and living in the dorms. The following year, he enrolled at Kettering as a student.
Kettering is a co-op university where students work and go to classes in alternate semesters, Lincoln notes. “I ended up getting a job at General Motors in their engine plant. I worked for three months and went to classes for three months all year round. During each working session, I was assigned to a different project.”
On one assignment, he supervised a production area that made engines. During another session, he was a quality engineer. “It’s a good program because once you graduate, you already have more than two years of work experience,” he says.
3M recruited Lincoln at a NSBE conference, and he started there in 2007, right after graduation. Lincoln has worked on three different projects in Singapore for a total of two-and-a-half years. He also spent ten months working on a production line in Decatur, GA.
“Every project brings new opportunities, challenges and obstacles. That’s what keeps me interested in the job,” he says.
Global opportunities at 3M
3M employs about 88‚000 people worldwide and has operations in more than seventy countries, reports Susan P. Myles, diversity specialist. Opportunities for engineers include corporate engineering roles in areas like project management, design, facilities, and process instrumentation and control systems, as well as roles for manufacturing, chemical, quality and software engineers.
Brandice Weathers does research on U.S. Navy vessels for NRL
Dr Brandice Weathers, material research engineer for the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL, Washington, DC) works at its Key West, FL facility. The focus of her research is the use of impressed-current cathodic protection on U.S. Navy vessels to prevent corrosion. Weathers started out at the NRL as a contractor in 2009 and became a fulltime federal employee in 2011.
“I’ve learned so much just from my short time here,” Weathers says. “Interacting with senior scientists, other engineers and support people, and being able to help the Navy’s cause, have been rewarding experiences.”
Summer programs spark engineering interest
Weathers was born in South Carolina but grew up in Memphis, TN. In high school, she attended summer programs that focused on technology. “It wasn’t long before I knew I was interested in engineering,” Weathers says. She enrolled at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for her bachelors degree in material science and engineering, and continued on to get her masters and then a 2008 doctorate in the same discipline.
“I had some research experience when I started with NRL but much of it was basic science. Now that I’m working in the Navy community, I’m tailoring my research to the specific needs of Navy vessels and systems,” Weathers says. “It’s exciting to have an end goal and to see our research being applied to the fleet.”
Weathers appreciates her college mentor and the strong diversity in engineering program at the University of Tennessee for supporting her throughout her career. “I still have contact with people from the program even though we work all over the United States,” she says.
Rewarding careers at NRL
NRL hires a wide range of engineers including aerospace, chemical, electrical, electronics, computer and mechanical engineers, says Lori Hill, deputy equal employment officer.
“NRL performs dynamic and complex research, which produces a myriad of end products benefiting the fleet and all of our armed services,” she says. “The diverse nature of NRL’s science and technology work is complemented by its diverse workforce, which provides not only technical talent but also the added value of varied life experiences, and that enhances our research and end products.”
Civil engineer Cebert Walters directs control systems for the MTA
Cebert Walters, assistant deputy director of control systems for MTA Metro-North Railroad (MTA; New York, NY), is responsible for ten managers and approximately thirty union workers. His department, communications and signals, manages the central traffic control system, as well as the system that controls the MTA’s catenary and third-rail power. Walters has been at the MTA since 1990, and works out of an office in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.
Walters attended a technical high school in his native Jamaica before coming to New York City in the 1980s. He got his 1990 BSCS at Lehman College (New York, NY).
He was recruited to work for the MTA at a job fair. “I had pursued my undergraduate degree with the view that I would be a programmer,” Walters says. “But as I got more work experience, centralized traffic control systems emerged as an interesting area to work in.”
That interest led him to City College of New York, where he received a 2002 MSCE with a concentration in transportation management. Walters notes that the MTA has various programs to help employees succeed, including tuition reimbursement.
“Over the years, the skill set needed from workers has changed. Where once we had serial connections to a microcomputer sitting somewhere in one room, we now have wireless networking. In a station a hundred miles from here, a network switching systems operator-maintainer can actually see what the rail traffic controllers are seeing.”
MTA’s workplace reflects the community
“Our goal is to create an inclusive and diverse work environment by reaching out to the community we serve,” according to Robert Rodriguez, director for diversity and equal opportunity. “We are considered one of the top railroad companies in the country. We appreciate that and feel it’s a testament to our workforce.”
In various work locations throughout Grand Central, including the railroad’s shops and offices, several video monitors play a film loop that includes interviews with diverse railroad employees discussing what they do for the company and how they make it better. In addition to the diversity message, the loop includes company information, important dates and weather forecasts. “It’s a way of reaching our employees where they work,” Rodriguez says.
Aerospace engineer Robert Walker specializes in missile defense at Aerojet
At Aerojet (Sacramento, CA), Robert Walker is lead test project engineer for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program, a U.S. Army defense system used to intercept ballistic missiles. His primary focus is on static test firings, structural and burst testing, and production support.
“I’m responsible for decision making and planning, coordinating quality tests and procurement, and creating test plans, test reports and technical proposals,” Walker says. Before he started on the THAAD program, Walker was a project engineer in Aerojet’s SM3-1B avionics group. He came to Aerojet about two years ago with a wealth of experience.
An evolving fascination takes shape
Walker was interested in mechanics at a young age. “When I was a child, I used to take things apart just to see if I could put them back together and have them work the way they were designed to,” he says. His interest zeroed in on aerospace when he first saw a Harrier jet, and progressed to a fascination with the space shuttle. He read everything he could about the program.
Walker was born in Ideal, GA and graduated from Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL) in 1998 with a degree in aerospace science engineering. After college, he worked for eight years as an instrumentation and explosives engineer at Thiokol (now ATK), responsible for components for the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster. He was the primary design engineer for the nozzle system that severed the nozzle from the rocket before water splashdown.
“It was a dream come true, being able to participate in the manufacture of a vehicle I had always been so interested in,” Walker says. From there, he became the project engineer for NASA’s Ares program to create a crew launch vehicle that was slated to replace the space shuttle.
“This was a unique opportunity and I learned a lot,” notes Walker. “I was with the Ares program from its inception. I was involved in the design and manufacturing of the hardware and I followed hardware down to the Kennedy Space Center as it was integrated into the vehicle and finally flown.” When the government canceled the Ares program, Walker moved to Aerojet.
Walker suggests that fellow engineers seek opportunities for training within their fields and across a variety of disciplines. Walker has completed training courses in geometric dimension and tolerancing, earned-value management systems, and root cause analysis/preventive action. He’s also taken business classes, and is a certified associate in project management.
Paul Mola leads global projects at Life Technologies
As president of global enterprise solutions at Life Technologies Corporation (Carlsbad, CA), Paul Mola is responsible for general management of the enterprise business. That includes securing and executing multimillion-dollar projects.
“Given the complex nature of the projects, the team that reports to me is made up of scientists, software architects, and product development and marketing professionals,” Mola says. “We pursue glo-bal opportunities to deploy complex technologies to fit clients’ needs.”
Mola was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. After high school, he joined the Kenya Air Force and was trained in air traffic control.
Following his military service, Mola wanted to travel the world. He went to India, where he earned a 1993 bachelors degree in biochemistry at the University of Nagpur. He also has a diploma in computer science and a postgraduate degree in biotechnology.
Research career pursuits lead to the U.S.
Mola came to the United States to pursue a career in scientific research at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH). In 2002, he moved to industry and joined Roche Diagnostics as a technical consultant. “I worked closely with thought leaders and scientific researchers, using cutting-edge technology to advance their research,” he says. “My interest in product applications resulted in a career change to capital systems sales.”
Mola joined Applied Biosystems in 2008 to support the company’s genomics business. He got a 2009 masters in executive leadership from the University of San Diego’s business school.
“Applied Biosystems and Invitrogen Corporation formed Life Technologies in 2008, about the time I finished my masters. It was a pivotal time in my career. I was appointed head of strategic competitive and market intelligence.”
In this role, Mola and a colleague led the global effort to assess advanced sequencing technology concepts, which resulted in Life Technologies’ acquisition of Ion Torrent, a new DNA sequencing platform. “The Ion Torrent technology has gotten significant traction in the market and is now poised to realize the dream of personalized medicine by making DNA sequencing more accessible. I will make it my mission to make these life-changing technologies accessible to the world,” Mola says.
Mola cites his mother, a former biology teacher, as an inspirational force in his life. They are working together to offer scholarships to needy children in Kenya.
Life Technologies seeks and trains a diverse talent pool
“At Life Technologies, we hire industrial, mechanical, electrical, computer and biomedical engineers,” says Ronita Griffin, leader of talent acquisition and diversity and inclusion. “We are especially in need of software engineers to support the growth in our genetic analysis business.”
According to Griffin, “We take a focused and intentional approach to learning opportunities for managers and employees, partnerships with diverse organizations, and relationships with diverse suppliers. Those practices help us build a diverse workforce and an inclusive environment that unleash the creativity and innovation that make us a product leader in our markets.”
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