Haley Stevens is a member of the history-making class of 42 women joining Congress in January, having been elected in November to represent Michigan’s 11th Congressional district. But this won’t be the suburban Detroit native’s first go-round in Washington – or her first time “rolling up her sleeves,” as she says, to work on U.S. manufacturing policy at the highest levels of government.
In 2009, Stevens (then in her 20s) was chief of staff on a Treasury Department task force working on the federal rescue of Chrysler and GM. She also helped create the White House Office of Manufacturing Policy under President Barack Obama. In 2014, Stevens joined UI Labs’ Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) in Chicago, eventually becoming the organization’s director of workforce development and manufacturing engagement.
Stevens says that advocating for U.S. manufacturers – and, specifically, for the digitalization, skills-gap solutions and industry collaboration critical to ensuring the sector remains globally competitive in the years ahead – was a key motivator of her run for Congress and a top priority as she heads back to Washington. She spoke recently with IWIM co-founders Christine LaFave Grace, Erin Hallstrom and Alexis Gajewski about the opportunities she’s looking to seize in Congress and what it means to her to be part of what the largest group of women ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives – as well as advice she’d offer for women looking to advance their careers in (or outside of) manufacturing.
IWIM: What have you learned about efforts you future colleagues are engaged in to advance manufacturing? What opportunities do you see?
HS: I won a Midwestern district in southeastern Michigan, a suburban district with a rich manufacturing sector, and I have particularly enjoyed meeting colleagues who are also representing manufacturing-rich districts. (Republican) Bryan Steil from Wisconsin – he’s got a manufacturing background similar to me, so we’ve had a chance to talk about our manufacturing economy, what we want to do in terms of meeting the skills-gap needs for our manufacturers, particularly our small and midsize companies, and how we want to harness innovation opportunities. Abby Finkenauer (a Democrat) from Iowa’s first congressional district, she’s very close to the labor movement and focusing on skilled trades and on infrastructure. Our focus is on a set of cross functional policy topics that will deliver for our regions.. We want to support the built environment and advance innovation. I believe this new Congress can support an infrastructure guarantee ensuring in partnership with state governments the maintenance and repair of our roadways…so that our manufacturers can build their products wherever there’s demand for them.
IWIM: That’s an interesting point – where do you see the intersection of, for example, infrastructure and workforce?
HS: There’s a great intersection between those two. In particular, there’s a demand for a technical and nimble workforce in suburban districts like mine. I want to make sure people can get to employment and job training opportunities. There’s a manufacturer with whom I’ve worked located in my district – we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on public transportation opportunities as well as mobility and technology opportunities, (so that) you can access a training facility and then access a job. Michigan’s 11th district maintains a really strong network of job training opportunities from Oakland Community College to Schoolcraft College, and Michigan Works, all of which support the advanced manufacturing sector. We need to continue to strengthen partnerships starting before students get to grade 12 and work with employers for on-the-job training opportunities and continued educational advancement. I’d also like to see apprenticeship programs recognized for college credit.
IWIM: How are you aiming in Congress to promote manufacturing education and manufacturing as a career opportunity?
HS: This is a passion topic of mine, and it’s one of the reasons I ran for Congress. I want to shine a light on our manufacturing sector, on the skilled trades opportunities, whether you go into a four-year degree, get that engineering degree, or you do something else—welding, computer-aided design, running computer-numerical controls machines. The partnerships begin early; and they begin in our schools.
I have created STEM education initiatives, working with middle schools and high schools, and even as a member-elect, I am spending a lot of time with our schools and the next generation, focusing on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and particularly in a region like mine where there’s a big emphasis on creativity and there’s a lot of opportunities for cross-functionality and innovation and design, so I want to put those training opportunities and the jobs of the future in front of our students, and I also want to continue to incentivize collaboration, so I’m looking to bring our industry leaders together with our educators and our nonprofits.
My district has strong representation from a lot of great organizations that have been working on the educational opportunities, that have been focused on STEM education – the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, as well as SME, formerly known as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, two great organizations that have a strong presence in Michigan, that are located in Michigan, (and) we’re coming together to not just talk about the next generation, which is certainly important, but also to harness the on-the-job training opportunities or making career changes for individuals.
I’ve spoken to people who are in apprenticeship programs who were doing other things and then found their way to the skilled trades, and they’re meeting a lot of the available needs in our labor market. (In my district) we’ve got a best-in-class workforce that has those partnerships; I want to strengthen opportunities in our high schools and support the next generation of technologists who will propel our future economy. I believe our manufacturing future is bright.
IWIM: With your work at DMDII, you have a unique perspective on the digital future of manufacturing and the workforce challenges that go along with this transition to a more-connected manufacturing environment. What’s an experience or a lesson that you take from DMDII that you’re eager to apply in Washington?
HS: There are a few things I take from working in an advanced manufacturing research lab focused on digital manufacturing design technology with respect to the future of work and the changing nature of manufacturing. The industrial internet of things has changed systems and in many cases improved culture, but there’s a little bit of uncertainty around where the future of manufacturing work is heading.
There’s a big role for our public policymakers to emphasize and support the role of technical talent and to encourage economic conditions favorable to the innovators and individual workers. The story of our country’s greatness has been couched within our innovation capabilities, particularly in the IoT space, where we were the ones who proliferated the internet and web applications and propagated the iPhone and stood up the 21st-century mobility economy. This in turn has come to support the modernization of our manufacturing economy and a new race for the future. We must seize R&D and innovation opportunities on shop floors and what’s taking place in regions like mine in southeastern Michigan
We’ve been in many ways discounted as a region in the past, but you look at the R&D and the patents coming out of our region, and there’s this exciting story of innovation; there’s relocation, there are “boomerangs,” people who have left and then come back. There are people who were working in automotive who stepped out and started their own companies and we’re seeing strong entrepreneurship, a strong opportunity for the interconnectedness of our supply chain and manufacturing economy.
The other big lesson that I take from working in an advanced manufacturing research lab that was part of President Obama’s Manufacturing USA network is that interconnectedness is paramount. Bringing together unlikely alliances, opportunities to sit large companies down who are often competitors with each other to advance a research agenda, or a shared workforce development need, the government can propel new outcomes and catalyze job growth. Seeing new technologies manifest before my eyes while working in a research lab showed me, “We need to win the future by competing rapidly and globally by meeting the demands for our manufactured products.” And I am willing to work with any of my colleagues to get this job done.
IWIM: What are your thoughts on this history-making class of women heading to Congress?
HS: I think it’s truly transformative, and it’s people who are representing their region and the will of the people who elected them based on the experience that we are coming with. I stuck very closely to the manufacturing economy; that was my motivation to run and that’s what carried me through my campaign.
I know that there are women with service backgrounds who won, women with business backgrounds, educators; we have a pediatrician who was just elected. On the demographic front, we’re seeing the first two Native American women who got elected to Congress, the first two Muslim women, that’s the representation in the people’s House—the people voted in this accountability, this transformation that they wanted to see, this restoring in a lot of ways the trust of our government, and I’m so thrilled to be a part of that. My sleeves are rolled up and I’m very eager and ready to deliver for the people of Michigan’s 11th district.
IWIM: Whether it’s women considering a run for office or looking to advocate for change in their careers, their workplaces, what words of wisdom would you give?
HS: The big thing that people get told a lot, which I stand by, is follow your gut. Follow your instincts. Pursue that mentorship opportunity. Pursue that new project that seems tougher or bigger than you’re used to. Step up to the plate, because you’re going to surprise yourself. The other important thing I would say for people who are looking to move up, particularly women, particularly women in the manufacturing space, is that a lot of times you have to pursue that opportunity. It’s not necessarily going to be given to you. So go after what’s yours; go after your dreams; go after what you want to achieve. I wouldn’t be in Congress today if I didn’t put up my hand, put forth my message, put forth my dream and vision and talk to everybody that I could about what I wanted to do for this region. That’s what makes the difference in your career, that’s how you can make change and certainly make change for yourself or in the industry that you’re working with. A lot of times some of the biggest discoveries are sitting right in front of you; it’s just that the way that people are looking at it or talking about it isn’t right there for the taking. It’s not on the agenda item for the meeting. But if it’s something you’re seeing that could be done differently or be pursued, put together a proposal; bring it forward to your manager. That’s why the manufacturing sector is so exciting, because it’s got an emphasis on process as well as innovation, and every good manufacturer knows that the innovation, the R&D happens on the shop floor; it happens with the workforce; it happens because you free your people up to create.