Women in the Workforce with Vaporstone Rail Systems

For this episode of NYS Manufacturing Now, Steve sits down with Holly Black, HR Manager for Vapor Stone Rail Systems. They talk about The Great Resignation, diversity & inclusion, women in the workplace, and much more.

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Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. Today we’re talking to Holly Black from Vapor Stone Rail Systems in Plattsburgh, New York. Holly, welcome to the podcast.

Holly Black: Thank you so much for having me.

Steve Melito: Holly, tell us about Vapor Stone Railways. What does the company do, and what’s its relationship to Wabtec?

Holly Black: Perfect. A little bit of history about Vapor Stone, and I’m not going to lie, it’s a little confusing. We’ve had a lot of different names over the years. Vapor Stone Rail Systems originally opened our doors in Plattsburgh, originally under the name as Stone Air. That was in 1998 where we built HVAC systems. HVAC units are those things that keep you warm and cold when you’re on a train or an airplane, anything like that. So, at that time we did rent out some of the space here on the base to Vapor Rail at the time, so that way they could build bus door systems. Our first major project as Vapor Stone Rail Systems was in 1999, for the New York Subway project R142, and they gave us that contract due to the new by America content that was needed for New York. And for this project, we built our first door operating systems. So, at that time we were doing HVAC systems, door operating systems, and in 2011, roughly, we started to build our door panels. Today we operate under the Wabtec Transit Division. Wabtec is Westinghouse Air Break. They have multiple different divisions. We have transit, freight, digital, mining. We kind of do a little bit of everything, but Vapor Stone is part of their transit division. And here we built a variety of transit rail car parts now. Still doing HVAC systems, door operating systems and door panels, and we build these for a variety of customers around the world like Kawasaki, Alstom, CRRC, Bombardier, along with multiple different authorities across the country.

Steve Melito: That’s good to know. And for folks who don’t know, the North Country is a Mecca for transportation in New York state.

Holly Black: Yes, we are.

Steve Melito: Holly, your job title is Human Resources Manager. What do you do, and how long have you been at the company? What’s your background like?

Holly Black: Sure. Yes, I am a human resource manager. And I have been here now for roughly a year and a half. Prior to that I still was in HR functions, mostly in the recruiting and staffing realm. We did have an onsite presence where I was our HR representative at various different manufacturing companies, but as our HR manager here at Vapor Stone, I am responsible for what I feel is the most important asset of a company and that is our human asset. So, I am heavily involved with operations, representing our people. With supply chain issues and back orders and machining parts, there are a lot of issues, but our most important one we deal with are our people. So, I do my best to represent them. Whenever we do anything regarding building projects, making sure that they’re happy with their benefits, their pay. I work with my people.

Steve Melito: And that is really important because there’s hardly a manufacturer I talk to that doesn’t say they’re having workforce challenges.

Holly Black: Yes.

Steve Melito: What are you seeing these days?

Holly Black: Well, right now, I don’t know if they’ll actually include it in history books, but we are in a period called the Great Resignation. All companies, not just manufacturing companies are facing workforce challenges. Fortunately or unfortunately, if you’re in our sales department, being in manufacturing with such a high demand for products on a global scale, we’ve been struggling a lot with supply chain issues, which means we can’t get the parts here in our facility to build our project for our customers. So, with that being said, we’ve had to push out a lot of our work schedule to better fit our supplier schedules for when they can get us parts. So, right now, we really aren’t facing that workforce challenge, and truthfully, it’s not really a good thing why we aren’t just, again, we’re not building like we would like to, we had planned to do a large ramp up last fall and that ramp up has just dissolved into hiring a few people here and there to meet our needs and a lot of those supply chain issues we find when talking to our vendors are because they themselves can’t hire a workforce. So, it all becomes this one long chain because now our customers can’t hire the people that they need because they also need to push out and spread out their schedules. So then, what we’re going to find is when we do catch up, we do get these parts and we do start to do our ramp up to take on the capacity that we require, we’re not going to have that workforce that our vendors and suppliers didn’t have, and now our customers aren’t going to have it. So, it’s just going to be this one long chain of a lot of our on- time deliveries not being on time.

Steve Melito: Right. Huge challenge everywhere.

Holly Black: Everywhere.

Steve Melito: I’ll be optimistic and say you’re going to find suppliers in New York state and, of course, over in Quebec as well. The two regions are very interconnected, especially in terms of transportation.

Holly Black: Absolutely.

Steve Melito: Let’s talk about workforce a little bit more because you’re going to get to the point that you do have to scale up. What do manufacturers need to do to do that? Now, one of the ways they can approach it is to appeal to members of demographic groups that have traditionally been underrepresented. At your company, do you do anything like this to appeal to groups that you can bring in?

Holly Black: Absolutely. We do it on a corporate and on a local level. On a corporate level, for Wabtec, we have various ERGs, which are employee resource groups, and these are focused towards diversity and inclusion, to really target those demographic groups that are underrepresented. From these ERGs we can find out the key information to better represent ourselves to not only retain our talent that we have to make sure that we’re servicing the diversity groups we have here on site, but also to encourage and to promote ourselves to people from those demographic groups to encourage them to want to work for us and truthfully to want to work in manufacturing as a whole. We’re not selfish. We know that people like to move around. So, as long as we’re encouraging these types of people to come into our company or into other manufacturing, it all works out well for us in the end.

Steve Melito: What do you think are some of the challenges to getting more women involved in manufacturing?

Holly Black: Truthfully, women are the most underrepresented group in manufacturing. Mostly, I believe that this is from a stereotype that started years ago. Truthfully, even if you go back to the world wars, when men had to leave their manufacturing jobs, so you had these female idols come out, like Rosie the Riveter, they were promoted everywhere to encourage women to join the manufacturing realm. Then as soon as the men came back, women fought to stay in the working world, but most women were pushed out of these manufacturing jobs because they were stereotyped as manly work, front work. Women were encouraged more to pursue office types jobs, nursing, teaching. So, in the end we won the battle, we were able to work, but really we focused on looking for those gender stereotypical roles. I think, the best way that we can start to break this bias is to start young. For a long time, and I’m not saying that we haven’t made a lot of advances and definitely in the recent decade we’ve seen these changes in our high schools and middle schools. But high school girls were expected to take home Ec classes while boys were expected to take shop class, stereotyping again, the roles that each were expected to pursue once they got out of school. So, Wabtec has created this program called Wabtec Girls. This is a week- long summer STEM camp for middle school girls. So, the way this program works is we partner with the local university. When we started the program in the beginning, we had that university help us with our curriculum, but really at this point we have our own team of engineers, which are all women. So, it’s really helpful when creating this curriculum to focus on girls and these engineers write our content. We also work with internal sourcing from our companies to get all the supplies that are needed for the camp. We spend a week at the university with the girls, nine to three, and then at the end of the camp we bring them on site to the local facility so they can see manufacturing in action. I would encourage anybody that is listening, especially if you don’t work in manufacturing, just to go see a manufacturing plant. I’ve been in manufacturing pretty much since I was a little girl and I was allowed to run around my father’s plant just to see manufacturing. It really is truly awesome. I don’t use that word casually just to see things being built. It is a wonderful experience and I think it does encourage people to want to get involved in manufacturing. So, bringing these girls on site to see it, we think, really encourages them to want to pursue, and it doesn’t have to be just production work or buying, but really look at the engineering, the details of all of the work. Currently, we have the program at our Erie site, and it’s been super successful. So, we are looking at growing the program and hopefully we’ll actually have a camp here this summer in the North Country and we will partner with Clinton Community College with their Advanced Manufacturing program there to get this up and running. That is our goal. And that’s just women, girls at a younger age, for those women that didn’t have the advantage to do these summer camps because, again, of stereotypes they missed the advantages of taking shop class in school. We had started this women in manufacturing training program up here in the North Country, right before COVID started. So, it really focused on getting women who were looking for a career change, for a better paying job, or moms that were stay- at- home moms looking to get back into the working world and it gave them the opportunity to receive training necessary to get these good paying jobs. I will say, especially, up here in the North Country, a lot of our manufacturing jobs are some of the best paying up in this area. And pay aside, it’s a job that is different every day. It’s just a lot of fun. So, we partnered with our local vocational training school and with other various manufacturing companies in the area. We created a curriculum to teach these ladies the skills they would need to work for one of our companies. COVID shut it down, but with restrictions being eased and the need for more of a workforce in our area, we are hoping to see this program getting started again this summer, fall time.

Steve Melito: Sounds fantastic. One last question if I may. It sounds like you would encourage young women to get involved in manufacturing. What’s your experience been like? Tell us a little bit about it. You’ve been around manufacturing your entire life, but maybe a little personal story might get somebody to say, “Yeah, I’m going to go for it.”

Holly Black: I like being the oddball out, I guess, just so that way the changes that I can make really are seen when I work in a, we call it pale, male and stale work environment. That is what manufacturing is. As a woman, you always stand out. And I know at the beginning when women were really pushing into these roles, it was hard. You deal with a lot of underhanded comments, words that are said to try to encourage us to leave, but we stayed and not only do we stay, we’re growing in this area, and we’re growing because we really see that women and girls offer a lot to this realm. We have a different mindset. Women and men are different. We’re fighting for equality, but at the end of the day, we are still different types of people. So, we contribute different things to any company we work for and being the ones that are lesser represented gives us the opportunity to really showcase our skills and our ideas and our opinions. Obviously, I encourage all women and girls and ladies to enter this realm. It is exciting, and I think the more of us that join will encourage others to join those ones that maybe don’t want to be the oddball out, don’t want to be the only girl in the room. There will come a point when we get enough women here that we’re not going to be the oddballs out, will just be women and men in the manufacturing realm.

Steve Melito: Until then, the workforce challenges are continuing, but you’re doing your part to make things right. Holly, thanks so much for being on New York State Manufacturing Now.

Holly Black: Thank you so much for having me.

Steve Melito: It’s been great. Hey, we’ve been talking to Holly Black of Vapor Stone Rail Systems, a North Country company that’s going places. Before we go, here today, I’d like to invite all of our listeners to meet up with FuzeHub in another beautiful part of New York State, the Mohawk Valley, for an event in June called Vitality in the Valley. This is a manufacturing expo that is happening on June 8th at Herkimer Community College, and it starts with a reception on the evening of June 7th. I’m telling you, the food alone at this reception is good enough that you should show up and attend. Anyway, the event itself has two tracks, manufacturing and agriculture, and lots of opportunities to network and build your company, including in a trade show style format. So, if you’d like to attend, please go online today and register, the website address is FuzeHub.com/manufacturing-expo-vitality-in-the-valley. And if that is too much to remember, just email FuzeHub at [email protected]. Let us know you’d like to attend and I’ll give you a call. So, on behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now and FuzeHub, this is your host, Steve Melito, signing off.

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