African Americans in engineering: many successes, but slow growth in numbers
Passing on knowledge to the next generation is second nature to experienced African American techies
“With engineering as a foundation, you can do almost anything.”
– Landon Haywood, GDEB
By Sonya Stinson
From bridge design to boat manufacturing, African American engineers are enjoying successful careers in many industries and work settings. Yet the progress of efforts to increase their numbers in the workforce remains stubbornly slow.
In 2010, African Americans accounted for 3.6 percent of all employed engineers in the U.S., despite making up 12 percent of the U.S. population, according to the most recent figures from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME, www.nacme.org). The percentage of engineering bachelors degrees earned by African Americans has declined from 4.4 percent in 2009 to 4 percent in 2011.
“The numbers are moving in the wrong direction,” says NACME’s president and CEO Dr Irving McPhail. “We need something akin to a Marshall Plan in the African American community that’s focused on STEM education.”
That plan, according to McPhail, needs to include promoting better teacher quality and preparation in math and science, especially for schools that serve large African American populations. It also needs to foster more general engineering awareness in the African American community.
“Engineering is not a very visible career in the communities where our young people reside,” McPhail says.
McPhail is an advocate of role models and mentors. Professional engineers and organizations, he says, must connect with students in schools, churches and clubs. “We need to turn up the volume on that kind of activity.”
Other solutions include financial support for African American engineering students via scholarships and grants, and the commitment of engineering schools to recruit and graduate more black students.
Improvement also depends on a receptive climate among U.S. employers. They must actively seek out African American engineering graduates, McPhail says, and provide them with opportunities to advance their careers and make significant contributions.
In this article, we highlight several companies and the outstanding African American engineers on their staffs. Many of them have taken up McPhail’s charge to serve as mentors to others in the field.
Navy vet and team leader Tom Peeples oversees fleet testing of truck tires
As team leader in customer engineering solutions at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (Akron, OH), Tom Peeples spends a lot of time listening to customers to determine how the company can incorporate their needs into its product designs. “We are the technical liaison between the business, our technical organizations and the customers – the people who part with their dollars for our products,” says Peeples, who oversees the fleet testing of truck tires in development.
Before arriving at Goodyear in 1999, Peeples spent several years in the U.S. Navy. He enlisted right after high school and spent a year in the service before enrolling at the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), where he earned a BS in mechanical engineering in 1994. He was in the NROTC program at RIT and was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy at graduation.
He attended officer training school, then spent four years as a surface warfare officer aboard ship in Pearl Harbor, HI, Yokosuka, Japan and San Diego, CA. He ended his naval career in 1998.
Goodyear paid for Peeples to earn his MS from RIT in cross-disciplinary professional studies, with a concentration in quality engineering and statistics, which he completed in 2003.
Peeples hopes to become a technical director at Goodyear. To help prepare for that role, he’s aiming for an assignment in one of the company’s international locations, such as Shanghai, Sao Paulo or Luxembourg.
“An international assignment will give me some exposure to other cultures,” Peeples says. “Even though we are one company, working toward ‘one Goodyear way,’ there are still some regional differences when we talk about tires around the world.”
Diversity makes a strong team at Goodyear
Joe Zekoski, interim CTO at Goodyear, says his company derives tremendous benefits from a workforce that is diverse in ethnicity, gender, culture, age and more. “They are representative of our marketplace, and market-backed innovation is the key to our success,” Zeboski says.
He adds that a diverse workforce brings different perspectives into the workplace and “helps us find more robust answers to our engineering challenges. The more diversity we have, the stronger our team.”
Senior project engineer Crystal Green is rising at Linde
Crystal Green started in 2012 as a senior project engineer at Linde Process Plants (Tulsa, OK), a developer of gas plants. The team she was assigned to lead was already far into its project. Her first task was to get up to speed and get to know the team members.
“I made an extra effort to connect with each of the engineers in the various disciplines, get to know them, understand how they work and let them understand how I work,” Green says. “Everyone has a different way of accomplishing their goals, and I didn’t want to micromanage, or be too hands-off.”
Green got her BS in chemical engineering from the University of Arkansas (Fay-etteville) in 2001 and an MBA at Oklahoma State University (Stillwater) in 2008.
Through her volunteer work as a tutor at the local Boys and Girls Club of America, she was awarded a scholarship sponsored jointly by the nonprofit and Phillips Petroleum Company. She interned with Phillips during college and went to work there full time after getting her bachelors degree.
Before arriving at Linde about two years ago, Green worked at Sulzer-Chemtech, a Tulsa-based company, doing similar work in turnkey plant development. She says the job at Linde offered a chance to take on greater responsibilities as a project manager.
Mentoring for management
Green is participating in a mentoring program at Linde that pairs her with a member of the company’s senior management. “This is a perfect opportunity for me to learn and grow and be exposed to different aspects of Linde, and it’s an opportunity to do some additional networking,” she says.
EB’s Landon Haywood ensures subs are built with humans in mind
Landon Haywood’s job at General Dynamics Electric Boat (EB, New London, CT) is to make sure the company’s submarines are built just right for the sailors who will take them to sea.
“It’s making sure you have the right passages, ladder heights, screen colors, just making the environment within the submarine more congenial to those who operate it,” says Haywood, a senior engineer who works in human systems integration.
Although Haywood has worked in the same group with the same technical leader since he started at EB in May 2008, he says his work experience changes constantly. “We work on a number of different projects with different people, so that makes it fun,” he says. “You don’t do the same tasks day in and day out.”
Haywood got his BS in electrical engineering from Hampton University (VA) in 2006 and an MS in systems engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA) in 2018.
BEYA makes the EB connection
He was employed as an IBM consultant when he made his first connection with EB. He was in Baltimore, MD visiting his brother, who also has an electrical engineering degree from Hampton, during the Black Engineering of the Year Awards (BEYA), and met an EB representative there. He traveled to Connecticut for an interview and landed a job.
Haywood, who would eventually like to become a program manager at EB, says he chose to study engineering because he thought the degree would open doors for him whether he ended up in a technical career or in another field.
“With engineering as a foundation, you can do almost anything,” he says.
Nicole Wiley assesses future system demands at American Water
Nicole Wiley, a senior planning engineer at American Water (Mount Laurel, NJ), is part of a group that conducts long-range planning studies to assess future demands on the water systems the utility operates.
“We also look at all the system components: the source of supply, the treatment facility and the distribution system, to make sure they’ll be able to supply water to our customers,” Wiley says.
Wiley earned a BE in environmental engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ) in 1996 and an MS in civil and environmental engineering from Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) in 2000. A high school chemistry teacher noticed her aptitude for math and science and suggested she consider a career in engineering.
“I went toward environmental engineering because it seemed like a profession where you could make a difference and do some good in the world,” says Wiley. She joined American Water’s planning group five years ago, after several years with engineering consulting firm CH2M Hill.
Watching her future unfold
Wiley is seeing some of the recommendations she helped develop early on at American Water being implemented. “When I see that a project has done something to improve the system, either for our company or our customers, it’s very satisfying to me,” she says.
She hopes to get more field experience soon, perhaps as a supervisor at one of the company’s water treatment facilities. “Maybe I’ll love doing that and I’ll want to stay in that part of the profession,” she says. “But I think ultimately I’d like to come back to the engineering side after having that experience, and I think it would make me a better engineer.”
Bechtel project engineer Eric Harp designs roads worldwide
Eric Harp, a civil project engineer at Bechtel (Reston, VA), specializes in designing roads. His primary job, he says, “involves locating a road and designing it so it functions properly.”
Harp’s engineering expertise is used in road-building projects all over the world. “One of the challenging things is, when you’re working in so many different regions, every place has different regulations and design standards,” Harp says. “You have to learn how other places around the world conduct their engineering.”
One current project, Port Mole, is a partnership with an agency working to boost tourism in Gabon, on the west coast of Central Africa. The waterfront development will feature a marina, conference center, hotels and shops.
Although his work has an international impact, Harp hasn’t actually done much traveling for Bechtel. He’d like to change that. In the spring of 2018, he hopes to take a trip to Dubai. “I would love to travel more,” he says. “I would love to see the projects I’m working on in person.”
Environmental with civil on top
Harp received a BS in environmental engineering from Stanford University (CA) in 2001 and an MS in environmental science and systems policy from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) in 2004.
After graduating from Stanford, he went to work for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). He was in a rotation program at Caltrans that was designed to include a segment related to his environmental engineering background.
“But after the first six months the economy went bad, so Caltrans had to freeze the program,” Harp says. “For two years I was doing just civil engineering work. That’s how I got the background in civil engineering, which led me to what I’m doing now.”
Isiaka Apatira manages body welding engineers at Toyota
Four years ago, Isiaka Apatira became an engineering manager in the body weld department of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America (TEMA, Erlanger, KY). Before that he spent eleven years at TEMA as a plastics engineer.
“As part of my development, I participated in several rotations to get more experience,” Apatira says. “That’s how I ended up in the body weld department.”
These days Apatira helps to develop the young engineers on his team and provide them with the tools they need to succeed in their assignments.
Learning the pluses of plastics
Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Apatira got a BS in plastics manufacturing technology from the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1992. As a college student, he was intrigued by the wide-ranging applications of plastics in manufacturing. “It can be used in just about everything,” Apatira says. “They are even making some engines with high-strength plastics.”
When he joined the body weld department, he had to learn how the behavior of metals and plastics differs. “Learning how those metals can be connected was a challenge,” Apatira says. “At the same time, I learned a lot about the actual body structure of the vehicle, because in plastics we’re not so focused on the body structure. We are focused on cosmetic applications.”
Apatira is exploring his opportunities at TEMA. “Whatever I do, I hope to take on more responsibility,” he says.
VP Adam Wright leads wind generation operations at MidAmerican Energy
Adam Wright ensures the smooth operation of a system that produces more than 2,000 megawatts of wind energy. Since 2012, Wright has been vice president of wind generation and development at MidAmerican Energy Company (Des Moines, IA). One of his responsibilities is assessing new wind projects in Iowa for the company.
Wright says his biggest challenge is making sure each new project fits MidAmerican Energy’s core values: customer service, employee commitment, environmental respect, regulatory integrity, operational excellence and financial strength.
“You might have a potential project with great financial opportunity, but does it provide the environmental benefits that you’re looking for?” he asks. “We have to step back and do a deeper analysis to make sure we are considering all the impacts to our customers, our regulators and our reputation.”
Evolving goals on the field and in the field
Wright attended the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) on a football scholarship. During his college years, he interned at Cal Energy, a predecessor of MidAmerican’s parent company. He left school in 2000 to play professionally. He contracted with the New York Giants, but after spending two years on injured reserve, he returned to UNO to complete his degree. He received a BS in civil engineering in 2002.
Wright started working at Mid-American Energy in 2003 as a pipeline safety engineer. Now that he’s reached the executive ranks, he says his greatest satisfaction comes from his role as a leader and coach.
“Mentoring our employees, making sure I’m giving them the appropriate feedback and providing opportunities for folks to grow – that’s the most rewarding part.”
Tanya Cook directs cigarette manufacturing at Philip Morris headquarters
Tanya Cook worked as a co-op student at Philip Morris USA, a division of Altria Group (Richmond, VA), during all her summers in college. But when she graduated, the company wasn’t hiring.
“I went to work in the automobile industry for three years, but I kept my resume out there,” says Cook, who earned a BS in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) in 1984. “I finally got a call from Philip Morris and I started here in August 1987 as an engineer.”
Today, Cook is director of cigarette manufacturing in the company’s Richmond operations. “My first time in a manufacturing building really expanded my field of vision,” she says. “You’ve got so much advanced machinery and the latest technology. I was able to travel to different countries and become an expert on the equipment I was going to be working on. They gave me all the tools I needed to succeed.”
Still having fun today
Cook travels to North Carolina A&T; State University (Greensboro, NC) at least twice a year for recruiting events. Recently Philip Morris hosted a bowling outing for students at the university.
Cook will be eligible for retirement in 2017. She says she can’t believe the time has gone by so fast. “I told somebody the other day, ‘If I’m still having fun like I am today, I won’t be ready to go,’” she says. “I really enjoy what I do.”
Con Edison senior engineer Samuel King-Nabi keeps track of distribution systems
Samuel King-Nabi, a senior engineer at Consolidated Edison (New York, NY), is responsible for the maintenance, safety and reliability of the power company’s underground and overhead distribution systems.
He works on projects like the design and testing of load-break/load-make switch devices. With money from a Department of Energy stimulus grant, Con Edison installed these switches in its underground structures to allow regional operations to isolate a section of an electrical feeder when needed. King-Nabi says a feeder is similar to a home electrical circuit that runs through a breaker, which allows power to flow to wall sockets.
“In conjunction with some of the other groups, I wrote a test specification that lets us know how often to test the feeder,” he says.
King-Nabi earned a 1999 bachelors in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ). In 2010 he got a masters in ME, with a concentration in power systems, also from Stevens.
Con Edison energizes a young mind
A visit by Con Edison representatives to the Stevens campus sparked King-Nabi’s curiosity about how an electrical generator plant works. He applied for a job at Con Edison and started working there after getting his bachelors degree.
He had started graduate school in 1999, but extra work pressures resulting from 9/11 and other crises affecting the utility interrupted his studies. King-Nabi was determined to go back and finish his advanced degree, and he’s glad he followed through. He declares, “You can never go wrong with more education.”
3M PhD chemist Olester Benson: an engineer through and through
Olester Benson’s title and academic credentials may label him a scientist, but his twenty-six years at 3M (St. Paul, MN) have focused on engineering research.
“Even though I’m a PhD chemist, in my body and soul I’m an engineer,” says Benson. His title is corporate scientist, but he’s in charge of an engineering group at 3M.
Benson got a BS in chemistry from the University of Colorado-Denver in 1981, and a 1986 MS and 1988 PhD in physical organic chemistry from the University of Colorado-Boulder. A native of St. Petersburg, FL, he says his college choice was influenced by his military service. “Colorado was my last active duty station when I was in the Army,” he says. During his eleven years of active duty, he took classes whenever he could, and finished his bachelors in Denver three years before his service commitment ended.
As the leader of his research group, Benson is involved in technology scouting, exploration and development. Over the years, his research group has transferred much of its research to manufacturing. 3M products he’s worked on include a range of reflective optical films used for traffic safety and personal safety garments, and for improving the brightness of computer, cell phone and tablet displays. He holds forty-nine U.S. patents.
A vision for future technologies
“In 2004, I had this vision of a new generation of manufacturing equipment that could really expand our capabilities,” Benson says. “It wasn’t until last year that management really bought into the vision.” Now he is building a new process development laboratory to explore and develop new technologies.
Benson spends a lot of time at 3M helping guide the careers of other technical professionals. His role as a coach and mentor extends beyond the workplace. He’s a liaison to the board of directors at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, of which 3M is a corporate member. He’s also vice chair of the graduate school advisory council at the University of Colorado.
He says passing on his knowledge to help others is second nature to him. “When I was a sergeant in the Army, the mindset was that you always have to train your replacement, because you never know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow.”
HNTB department manager Tirzah Gregory wears many hats
Tirzah Gregory is a department manager in the Kansas City bridge design group at HNTB (Kansas City, MO), an architectural, engineering, planning and construction firm. She’s responsible for matching each assignment to the most appropriate person on the staff. She helps the group director with budgeting, meets with clients and develops a strategic plan for the department, among a host of other duties. Gregory also chairs HNTB’s Integrate committee, which focuses on promoting a more diverse workforce throughout the company.
And, she says, “The remainder of my time is spent working on actual bridge designs for a variety of projects.”
Before she became a department manager in 2012, Gregory spent the majority of her days designing bridges as a project engineer. She was part of the team that designed and built 554 bridges over the last three and half years for the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Safe and Sound project.
“We came up with an innovative approach to design that saved our client time and money and helped us complete the project fourteen months ahead of schedule,” she says.
Gregory began working at HNTB right after earning her BS in civil engineering from Washington University (St. Louis, MO) in 1994. In 2001 she got an MS in civil engineering from the University of Kansas-Lawrence.
Looking ahead, looking back
Gregory hopes to become group director of the bridge department for HNTB’s Kansas City office. She’s been learning the skills and expertise she’ll need for that post by assisting the current group director. “I’m also challenging myself to take on roles outside of work in order to acquire more leadership and communication skills,” she reports.
Gregory reflects that one of her biggest influences growing up was her grandfather, a mechanical engineer who worked for Lockheed during World War II. “When I was young he engaged me in conversations about math, science and engineering, which helped me see that I had a place in that world.”
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