STEP Award Winner Leads Teams, Saves Lives
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As the North America Deliver Operations Lead at Johnson & Johnson, Elaine Thibodeau’s work helps ensure quality, continuity, preparedness and resiliency across the supply chain. She also serves as an advocate for women in the manufacturing industry and a voice of encouragement for millions of young women and girls who might enter the industry one day.
“I think we need to keep fighting the myth that a manufacturing career doesn’t marry well with having a family,” Thibodeau said. “We need to find opportunities to bring young women into our factories and give them early, positive experiences with the industry.”
Her 30 years of experience at Johnson & Johnson includes time in orthopedics, diagnostics, pharmaceutical manufacturing and consumer medical devices – roles that have come with all sorts of challenges. Earlier in her career, Thibodeau led a team that was tasked with taking over a third-party plant to continue producing an oncology medication that was on the FDAs drug shortage list. By making a deal with a supplier to take over a section of their plant, she kept production running.
Doctors in an advocacy group told Thibodeau how essential the medication was for their patients and how shortages caused them to make difficult decisions. “That always stuck with me – it motivated me every day to do my job well,” she said.
At times, Thibodeau faced immense challenges. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, she worked to get manufacturing up and running, bringing jobs back to the community that was deeply affected and providing vital products to enable employees to take care of themselves.
“Day-to-day life was just physically difficult,” she said. “We had to take care of the people first, making sure they had what they needed to be safe, whether that was a generator or medicines or water or diapers.” In collaboration with site leaders and other businesses in the area, she helped to rebuild the industry and begin the process of renewal.
Thibodeau’s interest in manufacturing began at a young age. As a young girl, she built furniture for her dolls with raisin boxes and pieces of wood she found in her family’s garage. When her father, an electrician, went to work, she would tag along, learning how to trouble shoot, which is a skill that has proven valuable.
“I had building blocks and I liked to sew,” Elaine remembered. “I was always interested in putting things together.” An enthusiasm for math and some encouraging teachers led her to an engineering degree, and after a few years, she was offered her first role at Johnson & Johnson – beginning an exciting career that continues to draw her out of her comfort zone.
“If the new job or the new project doesn’t scare you a little bit,” she said, “you’re probably going to be bored in six months.”
Elaine Thibodeau won a 2019 Manufacturing Institute STEP Ahead Award. This profile was adapted from an original interview for the Input, the NAM’s members-only e-newsletter.