Photo by Janet Cantore Watson.
Dylan Laumbach has her sights set on an advanced degree in mechanical engineering followed by a career where she can stay connected to the hands-on machining work she loves. This 17-year-old senior from Chickasha (Okla.) High School is SkillsUSA Oklahoma’s 2019-20 college/postsecondary parliamentarian and a model student in Canadian Valley Technology Center’s precision machining program.
Laumbach already knows her way around a shop floor, and she’s aware that she’s one of the few women choosing to make a career in machining or engineering, industries that both remain overwhelmingly staffed by men. She’s aware of something else, too: her unwavering drive to catch up to her dreams no matter what obstacles might temporarily block the way.
Engineering was Laumbach’s passion from a young age. Her mother served in the military and her father worked in seasonal construction, jobs that meant the family was often on the move. Before Laumbach began high school, however, her family settled in Chickasha, and she finally had the opportunity to start pursuing her dream.
She visited Canadian Valley Technical Center (also in Chickasha) to tour the school’s pre-engineering course but found she didn’t immediately connect with the classroom or its students. Instead, another class unexpectedly grabbed her attention: precision machining. Laumbach says she loved the atmosphere of the precision machining shop, and it was there she had an encounter with a second-year student who inspired her to rethink her plan.
“He was talking to me about the machines,” Laumbach explains. “Eventually, he just said, ‘What do you actually want to do when you grow up?’” Laumbach told the student she wanted to be an engineer but shared with him that she hadn’t felt excited about the pre-engineering course during the tour. “He told me [precision machining] would actually give [me] the more hands-on side of engineering. That made sense to me.”
In addition to gaining experience with machining, Laumbach also liked the idea of being able to secure a position directly after high school to help pay for college, something that experience would help her achieve. “I had always worried about how I would pay for college,” she says. “Figuring out that I wanted to go into mechanical engineering [in college], and then finding out machining was a part of mechanical engineering, I’m already going to have the experience. And plus, it’ll give me a way to pay for that degree.”
Laumbach’s family was supportive of her engineering dreams, but her mother — concerned about the safety of the machine shop — agreed to support the decision on the condition that Laumbach didn’t get hurt. Laumbach made the best case for safety she could and, upon receiving her mother’s still-hesitant consent, she enrolled.
“It was a huge struggle at first,” she admits. “I was the only girl in that class. So, all the boys would kind of just look at me like, ‘Are you supposed to be in here? Are you the secretary? Are we missing something?’”
Laumbach reminded herself that her classmates actually were missing something. They hadn’t yet gotten to know her, so they weren’t familiar with her skills, her determination or — most importantly — her love of working with machines. She recalls telling herself and her peers, “I’m here because I wanted to be. You guys are not going to make me feel like I don’t belong here. I love the shop, and I’m going to work just as hard as you guys.”
Despite staying positive about her classroom experience, Laumbach reports that the challenges continued. The boys in her class set out to intentionally make her lose her temper. Often, she would ignore her classmates by focusing on her projects, going into the shop where the noise of her work would drown out any conversation.
Developing her skills
Laumbach’s advisor, Wesley Hess, introduced her and her classmates to SkillsUSA at the start of the school year. In addition to being a precision machining professional, Hess is a former SkillsUSA member and advocate for the program at his school. Laumbach acknowledges that the skills she learned through her advisor and SkillsUSA made all the difference in a tough situation.
“SkillsUSA turned me into a much better person,” she says. “At the beginning of the year, with all the boys harassing me, I was just a very angry person. I kept secluding into myself. Then, learning the soft skills and then the Framework skills, I kind of broke out of that. I was able to communicate. I was able to work through everything and then put all of my anger into my work and make it even better.”
Laumbach began to focus all her energy into honing her skills. She recalls, “I just started putting all of my effort into my work. Any time I got angry, I would just go out into the shop and I’d start whatever project I had on hand.”
It didn’t take long for Laumbach’s peers to notice her developing skills. She began fielding questions from her classmates and lending a helping hand to some. “I ended up helping a lot of the boys figure out what to do on their machines,” she says. “So, they went from basically torturing me for two to three months to being like, ‘Oh she actually understands this. She deserves to be here.’”
While the boys in Laumbach’s class finally began to recognize her technical skills, her advisor took note of her burgeoning leadership qualities. Hess approached Laumbach and asked her to consider running for state office, a challenge she quickly accepted. With the support of Hess and other faculty, Laumbach prepared her speech and developed her campaign materials, including over 300 machined coins that featured her personal logo and slogan: “Creating the Blueprint for Success.” Whenever she experienced doubt, Hess encouraged her to remember that she was prepared. “He was there the entire time, saying, ‘You’ve got this. The leadership skills that you learned in my classroom helped you. You’re going to do fine.’” That preparation has continued to serve her in her role as a state officer.
These days, Laumbach has been applying her lessons-learned to the next phase of her plan: a position with a small machine shop near her school while she pursues a degree in mechanical engineering. After touring several local machine shops with Hess and her classmates, Laumbach feels confident that, after college, she’ll secure a position that will allow her to continue to work hands-on. “I want to be making different things every day, being able to talk with people that are around me,” she explains.
She knows that she may continue to encounter skepticism in the industry, but she says she’s prepared for that, too. “I’ve always been told that I can do these things,” she says. “[There’s] always been a voice in the back of my head saying, ‘There’s no reason anybody wouldn’t want you for this position. If you can prove it to them, if you have the credentials and you know that you can do it and you show that you can … if you have that confidence … there’s no reason that they wouldn’t want you.’”