“When I tell people I am a degreed engineer, they respect me for my strong technical background. This is helpful.”
After earning her BS in mechanical engineering, Erica Schumacher returned to Rutgers to pursue her MS in industrial engineering. Since leaving Rutgers, she has lived and worked in upstate New York. She spent ten years at Bechtel Plant Machinery Inc. as a quality and non-destructive test (NDT) specialist. Today, she is the vice president of Extende Inc., which is the exclusive distributor of CIVA non-destructive test simulation software in the U.S. and Canada.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up near Trenton and Princeton. Being raised there led me to look at Rutgers because of the beautiful advantage of in-state tuition.
Did you choose Rutgers for any other reasons?
Its overall reputation is close to those of better-known and more expensive schools. The value was there. I’ve since learned that many people outside of New Jersey view Rutgers as if it were an Ivy League, high-end private school. This made me realize I’d made a good decision!
Did Rutgers live up to your expectations?
The university is great. It is a tremendous value.
I was accepted by both Rutgers and RPI for grad school. I had a free place to stay near RPI, so would have only needed to pay for my tuition. But it was less expensive to go to Rutgers and live in an apartment than to go to RPI. Rutgers also gave me a part-time teaching assistantship. So I chose Rutgers. I spent a year, full-time at Rutgers and then finished my master’s by transferring credits from RPI and Union College to Rutgers.
Rutgers had better facilities. At the time, RPI had limited access to Macintosh computers, especially ones with built in hard drives. But back in 1991, Rutgers had well-equipped computer labs with plenty of computers. I was glad about my decision—Rutgers was state-of-the-art.
Why did you switch from mechanical engineering to industrial engineering?
I was more interested in learning about manufacturing and what was behind it. I felt IE would give me options that would be a good complement to what I already knew from mechanical engineering and that I could apply both to industries.
Have you been able to do this?
My mechanical engineering background has helped me understand power plant systems, and my industrial engineering background has helped me understand how different types of components are manufactured.
You were in the GE management development program while working on your master’s degree. How did you do this?
GE was a rotational training program that was site specific and that exposed me to different parts of the business.
This was a very competitive program. Only five or six were hired the year I got into it. I remember there were probably between 30 and 40 young people at the onsite interview, and we were interviewed by teams of employees, many of whom were in their late 40s and 50s. This was intimidating to someone like me, who was just out of college.
I was the only woman hired for the training program that year. They always made an effort to put me in brochure photos, as they wanted to encourage women to participate in the program.
Have things changed for women engineers since then?
I was at Bechtel from 1997 until 2007. When I left in 2007, there were more women in the engineering building than when I started. And the women there seemed more comfortable being themselves. They could dress “girly” and still be taken seriously. I’d worn pantsuits when I started because I didn’t want to be mistaken for a secretary.
What was your biggest takeaway from your years at Bechtel?
Bechtel taught me to write well. The Bechtel site I worked at is a prime contractor for the naval nuclear program, so everything I wrote had to be precise, fact-based and well documented.
Because the facility required that computers and paperwork stayed in the building, I’d have to return to the building if I had work to do at night. My personal takeaway was learning to prioritize what is really important.
What does your current position at Extende involve?
I’ve been at Extende since August 2011. We’re a small company and my roles range from putting together proposals and negotiating contracts with my customers in the U.S. and Canada to providing technical support and teaching training classes.
Non-destructive testing involves similar technologies as medical testing—x-rays, ultrasound—to make sure structures are sound. Our software can help clients optimize tests on anything from railroad ties to power plants. It can help them make sure there are no cracks or monitor corrosion in piping, which is a big concern of oil and gas industry.
Did you have a favorite SoE professor?
Professor Noshir Langrana, who taught continuum mechanics, was very helpful. He told us that he was there to answer questions and when he held office hours – he actually meant this.
How has your SoE education helped you?
My undergraduate education gave me a good understanding of power plants, which was invaluable when I worked at GE and Bechtel, which supported power plants.
My master’s training taught me to understand manufacturing and how things are made. I’ve found that when I tell people I am a degreed engineer, they respect me for my strong technical background. This is helpful.
What do you do for fun in upstate New York?
I’ve gained outdoor sports abilities of necessity! I snow shoe, cross country ski and ice skate now. You have to embrace the winters here or else you’ll spend all your time inside.
I also like to garden and I like to travel, which my current job supports.
What is your favorite app on your phone or tablet?
The flashlight app! It definitely gets used the most. I also like weather apps, like NOAA that have radar maps and forecasts.
What’s the last movie you saw?
I saw a few, including the most recent Hobbit film, while I was on 11- to 14-hour flights on my last business trip, to Extende headquarters in Massy, France and a conference in South Korea.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading the Outlander series. These are long, but fun, books – good to bring on long flights.
What is your favorite memory from your student days?
All the time I spent with the friends I made. The people I met are people I still keep in touch with today. I would actually advise kids looking at colleges to pick a college by looking not only at the academic programs, but also at the people on campus to see if they’re people they’d want to get to know. After all, these people will be your friends for life.
If you could go on vacation tomorrow, where would you go?
I’d like to go back to Santa Fe. It was somewhere that felt different than much of the U.S. but you didn’t need a passport to get there. It’s a neat little city.