Inspiring the Next Generation of Women in Manufacturing: Q&A with 2022 STEP Ahead Award Winner Sylvia Chan

On her first day with GlobalFoundries (GF), Sylvia Chan was a team of one, faced with the challenge of leading over 5,000 employees in Lean Six Sigma (LSS). Not only did she meet the challenge, but she has also redefined training and development in GF Singapore. Today, she is an LSS Master Black Belt with 25 years of experience in various manufacturing industries. She has built LSS teams and cultures, personally trained and coached thousands in LSS, and empowered individuals and teams across enterprises.

As the head of Operations Training and Development at GF Singapore, her passion for people development has greatly strengthened the company’s talent pool. Chan is also the lead of the Singapore chapter of GF’s GlobalWomen employee resource group, as well as mentorship and development programs. She holds a master’s degree in statistics from the National University of Singapore and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Newcastle University in the UK. Chan’s inspirational leadership was integral to her being selected to receive a 2022 STEP Ahead Award from The Manufacturing Institute.

The STEP Ahead Awards honor women who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in their careers and represent all levels of the manufacturing industry, from the factory floor to the C-suite. STEP Ahead aims to foster a 21st-century manufacturing workforce by empowering and inspiring women in the manufacturing industry through recognition, research and leadership, as well as by motivating alumnae to pay it forward by mentoring the next generation. The goal of the program is to build networks for women to have support in their industry and to elevate the role models who can inspire the next generation.

“The 2022 STEP Ahead Honorees and Emerging Leader awardees are excellent representatives of the exciting opportunities available in manufacturing,” said Denise Rutherford, 2022 STEP Ahead chair. “These remarkable women and the leadership they show help inspire the next generation of female leaders to consider careers in manufacturing.”

Chan’s achievement was applauded by GF leadership.

“Congratulations to Sylvia on winning the STEP Ahead Award! I thank her tremendously for her hard work training and mentoring others within GF,” said KC Ang, GF SVP and GM Fab Management.

Joseph Chia, GF VP and GM Fab Management, said “this is a clear recognition of Sylvia’s enormous contribution to GF, and we rejoice with her immensely in receiving this prestigious award.”

We sat down with Chan to discuss her career, her love of engineering, the STEP Ahead Award, and more:

Can you tell me about your path to GF?

I chanced upon this amazing opportunity to join GF Singapore in 2015. Single-handedly, I led, successfully deployed, and implemented Lean Six Sigma. Today, we have built a culture of continuous improvement, with a capable team of over 100 LSS practitioners who are actively involved in driving continuous business improvements that bring value to GF’s customers.

My journey at GF is full of excitement and every day is a new adventure!

You’ve had a very successful career at GF. Can you tell me about your current role and responsibilities?

I am currently leading the Singapore Operations Training and Development. I am very excited to be given this opportunity to strengthen the building of the company’s talent pipeline, focusing on attracting, developing, and retaining our talent pool.

We have transformed our Technical Induction Program – from revamping content and mode of delivery, including virtual and online learning options, to upskilling our trainers. This makes the training more interactive, engaging, and effective.

Another major role I have is working on improving our employee skills framework. We firmly believe strong foundational training coupled with a clear, defined skills map is the basis to facilitate seamless integration of every employee. In turn, this enables individuals to understand the job roles, core skills, competencies, and career pathways, as well as how to contribute to the organization more effectively, which directly impacts employee retention.

We recently embarked on the enhancement of internship programs that aim to help develop students’ professional aptitude, strengthen their personal character, and provide a greater door to opportunity. We have followed the three Es to strengthen the program: hands-on Experience, Educational opportunities and Engagement with management and senior leadership on a regular basis. We are still working on employee skills framework, with an emphasis on helping employees map their career progression.

What attracted you to semiconductor manufacturing?

What is rewarding and satisfying to me is knowing that what we produce enables and enhances the lives of many. It is exciting that manufacturing continues to evolve, adapt, and drive innovation. This is made possible with STEM, and I am proud to be a part of it.

Tell me about winning the STEP Ahead Award. Why do you think it’s important for women to be recognized in this field?

I am humbled and honored to be recognized especially since my entire career has been in manufacturing. I am grateful for my mentors and the incredible team around me who forms my support system.

It is important for women to be recognized in this field as it acknowledges the skills we have developed, that we are equally capable and competent in an industry that is largely male dominant. It affirms the positive impact we create in our company, industry, and community. In addition, it helps elevates role models that can inspire future generations to join them.

I think it’s also a privilege to be able to receive the award in person.

Are there any misconceptions or biases you’ve encountered as a woman in our industry?

I have heard this many times: “Oh, it is very rare to have a woman Master Black Belt as the role is very demanding and requires high interaction and engagement with the senior leaders.”

I would just smile politely and say, “Today is your lucky day, as you are looking at one!”

I am glad the situation today has improved significantly. At GF, we have a very strong diversity and inclusion culture that promotes and works to build equality across the workplace. I have been blessed to have an equal seat and voice at the table. Fifteen to twenty years ago, women had to work much harder to have success like that of their male counterparts.

How has mentorship impacted your career (having a mentor, being a mentor)?

I am fortunate to have had great mentors throughout my career. They have guided, inspired, and shaped me into who I am today. I am thankful they are always there, willing to help me navigate through the “maze” by imparting invaluable wisdom and advice. They give me confidence by telling me “I can do it.” They have cheered me for the whole time and watched me grow.

Now I am a mentor to a couple of people, and that is also valuable for me because I get to hear other perspectives.

How has your involvement with GlobalWomen impacted your career, and how has it been tied to mentorship?

First, I try to understand what women at GF want. Most of the time, the answer is to learn and grow. I also try to inspire confidence in other women. Just having the courage to raise your hand to ask a question or make a comment is very important.

And for our mentorship program, we try to make it easier by having group mentoring. That way, those who are quieter can take time to build their confidence slowly to ask a question. It’s all about helping other women grow, and not leaving anyone behind.

According to the Manufacturing Institute, women make up nearly half of the labor force, yet they represent less than 30% of the manufacturing workforce. In your opinion, what steps does the industry need to take to attract and retain more women?

Personally, I feel it is the exposure and it needs to start with education and the mass media. I think there is a strong stigma against women working in manufacturing, even among parents and educators, that this work is laborious, unattractive, working mostly with men in dirty and in an uncomfortable environment. We need to address this perception bias as this is not the case, especially at GF.

There are many opportunities and varieties within manufacturing, and many women have made successful careers in manufacturing. By promoting opportunities and inspiring girls from an early age, we will significantly increase the talent pool in long term.

Another important step is to ensure there are seats for women at every level, including the management and executive table. This makes it clear that there are opportunities for everyone to progress and grow with the organization.