Donna Comp-Penwarden is a quality interior inspector at the Nippon Sharyo railcar factory in Rochelle, IL. Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice

Donna Comp Penwarden

Donna Comp-Penwarden is a quality interior inspector at the Nippon Sharyo railcar factory in Rochelle, Illinois.

I went to school to be a cop back in 1980, and then I worked as a nuclear armed guard for ten years. I also got married and started a family.

My dad raised us to believe that anything we wanted to do, we could do it. He was not a chauvinist. He didn’t have any sons living at home when he retired, so I helped him when we redid his house.

Since March 2012, I’ve worked at the Nippon Sharyo railcar assembly plant in Rochelle, Illinois.  I started out when a temp agency assigned me to write down defects for the customer of the cars in the Quality Assurance (QA) department, and after 90 days, I was hired full time as an inspector.

Now I inspect the interior and exterior of the “final car.” I inspect the vestibule area and all the ceiling compartments, the roof, the undercar.  There’s no checklist, but you know what to look for.  You learn on the job — someone that knows it or has learned it, trains the next person. We were given some instructions but not much, when I started. Training is improving some since then.

I also used to work directly with the customer [a public transit agency].  Every car is inspected, and they have a full team inspecting all the time.  The last customer we had, VRE, requested me, because I was recommended by the Metra customer for my knowledge on how to write defects. You have to learn the differences between different car designs: Metra might allow a 2mm gap, where VRE allows only 1mm. Now they’re building DMUs and Metrolinks, and I’ve started inspecting those.

I take the job seriously, because it’s public transportation, and I don’t want that on my conscience [if something goes wrong with a train].

There are about eight people in the QA Team, with four women. It’s the team that has the most women, it’s sort of seen as the place for females. We’re not putting anything together, we’re just inspecting. The only other parts of the factory where there are females are low-skilled jobs like Packing, Insulation. I don’t mean to demean them, but this is what some of these women were told.  Materials and Receiving … these are not really considered “the floor” [of the factory where the manufacturing work is done in earnest].  There’s one woman welder, and they just hired a bunch of temps doing the low-skilled jobs that are females. We probably only have 20 female workers on the floor, out of 400.

I don’t know why the women [at the Nippon Sharyo factory] stay at the low-skilled jobs, but I know when they ask for training, they’re given the runaround. I do feel if they [managers] are going to promote a woman, it’ll be one for appearance only, “Look we promoted a female in a job that has no authority”.

Recently, I was told [by managers that] I had a promotion as a Team Lead, but it was taken away, they said it was all a misunderstanding. When I finally said I wanted the position, it all backfired. Instead, they promoted a guy who had no background [in QA]. He was an electrical worker and now he’s my boss. I know 100% I was more qualified than him.

That’s when I realized that I’m really not gonna go anywhere besides QA. Females aren’t gonna get upward mobility here [at Nippon Sharyo]. I was lucky enough to get into a QA Department when I did.

That’s ok, because I like my job.  I’m 52 years old, I make good-enough money, I have my family: a husband, two daughters and one son. And I like the inspecting. I don’t need any hassles with Management, so I can put up with it.

Hopefully, things will change and Management will start seeing things as they really are and start improving upward mobility for women. I believe the best person for the job should get promotions, be a man or woman.  All persons should be treated and trained equally.

“Women Can Build” means to me that women can do anything we’re trained to do. I think females are more persistent and sometimes they want it more perfect than the guys. They’re gonna measure to the T, when the other one eyeballs. And sometimes women are more agile in a way, than the big guys. Even with heavy things, it’s normally a two-man-lift, or they use an apparatus to help the men lift.  I know the girls could do all the electrical stuff here. As long as women are trained, they could do it.

I think the problem is women are not applying — women just don’t have the knowledge that they could actually do it. If females realize what’s entailed with this train thing, they’d want to get involved! If they had a Job Fair and brought some of the equipment so women could see it, they would realize it’s easy, and they would be going for it!

We could get more women in if they could advertise more with free training, or funding for school, or something where they could work and do this at the same time. My daughter got an education through Job Service in Illinois, she went to school free and became a dental assistant. It was all paid for, but they only offered certain jobs. Now they are doing something for welding out here. But if women don’t apply, they won’t get it. But if they did, it’s a lot higher pay than other jobs.