Ford Engine Plants Show How Far Women Have Come (With Video)

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Windsor Star/Sharon Hill

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The 5.0 litre V8 engine. The power in the Mustang muscle car and the Ford F-150 truck.

It’s a made-in-Windsor engine and much of the force behind it is girlpower.

Head of maintenance. Female. Manufacturing engineer. Female. In charge of the assembly line. Female.

Women make up about a third of the local Ford management team and their leader is also a she: Shaun Whitehead, operations manager for the Ford Motor Company of Canada’s two Windsor engine plants.

“It isn’t even something we consciously think about now,” Whitehead said Thursday of the number of women in management. “There is a deep belief that diversity and inclusion is really going to make the team better, is going to make us stronger, is going to make us more competitive.”

It wasn’t always that way of course. As Whitehead looked toward today, International Women’s Day, she recalled a much more male dominated manufacturing environment where women weren’t even considered. One of the stories she likes to tell comes from the 1980s when she hadn’t yet graduated as an electrical engineer and before she worked for the Ford Motor Company.

“I travelled to the steel mill to install the automation. When I asked where the women’s washroom was, there really wasn’t one. So I had to go to the building next door to use the washroom.”

Whitehead, 50, said you fast forward to today and it’s a completely different environment. “It’s indicative on both. You’ve got more young girls and young women who are interested and you’ve got a lot more companies, and Ford Motor Company is definitely one of them, that really wants to get the best talent.”

As she walks through the sprawling east-end Essex Engine Plant, there are two women standing together by the ‘crank’ line where the plant manufactures its own crankshafts.

“You have two people over here,” said Whitehead.  ”One of them is a machine operator and one of them is an engineer. This is one of the most technical places you can be.”

While a third of the 28-member management team is female, about 20 per cent of the assembly line workers are women in the two local engine plants that employ about 1,700 people.

The plants produced more than 540,000 engines in 2013. The Essex Engine Plant makes the 5.0 L V8 engine for the Mustang GT and Ford F-150 trucks while the Windsor Engine Plant makes the 5.4 litre V8 engine for the Ford E-Series wagons, Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator along with a V10 engine.

Nina Haggins, a manufacturing engineer at the Essex Engine Plant who has been with Ford 14 years, has much more to say about redesigning the tooling on the engine line for a new oil cooler than what’s up with all the women.

“I’m used to it. I almost don’t look at myself as ‘I am a woman in manufacturing,’” Haggins said.

What one after another of the women in the plant would rather talk about is being part of the team that produces the powerful engine for the iconic pony car. It was billed as 420 horsepower for the 2014 Ford Mustang GT and in April the all new Mustang will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

“It’s totally cool,” Haggins said.

Whitehead has owned a Mustang since 1986, before she started with Ford. She races her black convertible 2014 Mustang GT off-road at the Milan, Mich., Ford proving grounds.

“I can lay rubber.”

The Michigan native never dreamed she’d be a site manager let alone making Mustang engines. She earned her electrical engineering degree from Lawrence Institute of Technology in Southfield, Mich., and started with the Ford Motor Company in 1988. She was first assigned to Windsor in 2000 as the engineering and maintenance manager at the Windsor casting plant. She later became its first female manager.

She returned to Windsor in 2011 to become the Windsor operations manager.

It’s the top job here and because her first name is Shaun – it’s her given name, not short for something – she’s used to people assuming she’s a guy. “It doesn’t bug me. You know you have a little fun with it every once in a while.”