Laura Mahany doesn’t just serve as a plant manager at Air Liquide. She’s also mentoring women within the organization and recruiting top engineers to increase female presence in manufacturing.
“I usually talk about sitting at a desk all day,” she says. “In manufacturing, you almost never do that.”
When she speaks to other young women on college campuses, she stresses the collaborative environments that manufacturing offers and the opportunities to interact with operators and technicians that make her work more interesting and engaging. From these conversations, she’s learned sustainability is an important issue for young people, who have become more vocal about being part of a grand environmental solution. And she has found that one of the biggest challenges for recruiting new manufacturers is simply a lack of visibility.
“When you talk to a child, they always know what a doctor does or a teacher does because they interact with those people,” Laura says. “But it’s not very often that they get to interact with engineers or visit a manufacturing plant.”
While in college, Laura provided some of those interactions herself as a mentor to underprivileged kids learning math and science. Each session involved experiments centered around different subjects and activities, from building roller coasters to making ice cream to using liquid nitrogen. By changing different elements of the experiments and studying how changes affect outcomes, Laura helped drive home scientific concepts – and gave kids a real-life example of what manufacturers do.
“Manufacturing is just a big word to them,” she says. “We need to make it real.”
Laura has learned firsthand how real manufacturing challenges can be. In 2017, she was tasked with preserving operations at her plant in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and although she and her team evacuated during the hurricane itself, they returned to a scene that she calls “something out of a zombie apocalypse.” Because her plant was critical to the safety of the community – it produced nitrogen, which other industries use to prevent the release of dangerous chemicals – she had to restore operations quickly, even before the local government had given the all-clear for residents to return.
“We had to collaborate with other industries to get what we needed, like cooling water and electricity,” she says. “Luckily, I had good relationships with people at other companies – it really made such cooperation possible.”
Laura credits college internships with convincing her that she was destined for a career in manufacturing. Although she had always had an aptitude for math and science – as a child, she took part in academic competitions to improve her skills – a college program for women in engineering made the larger engineering program feel more approachable and drew her into more applied opportunities.
“I realized I liked the more hands-on work of manufacturing – the direct interaction with the meat of a business,” Laura says. “I liked how every day was different, fast paced, challenging.”