Jo van der Plas ’07 is an Engineering Manager with Turbine Airfoils NPI Manufacturing in Cincinnati, OH. Her team introduces turbine blade manufacturing technologies and processes for new and redesigned GE Aviation products. Most turbine blade manufacturing technologies are aimed at reducing fuel consumption and improving durability across the many environments in which aircraft take off around the world. She chatted with us recently about her job, her company and about living in Ohio.
Jo, pictured third from the left, has led the Shriners Hospital for Children drive for GE since 2014. Here they present toys and monetary donations as part of the annual holiday hope drive, which supports several organizations in Cincinnati.
You’ve been at GE a long time. What is it that has kept you there?
The first thing is the professional atmosphere, especially regarding diversity. There’s a high level of respect and professionalism that exists toward everyone – women, people from different backgrounds, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Everyone gets equal treatment regarding respect for their accomplishments, promotions, and leadership opportunities. As a woman at GE Aviation for 10 years, I have always felt I could speak up, share my ideas, have a seat at the table, and be heard.
The second thing I would say is the tremendous technical challenge I have found in each role. I feel like I’m always growing. It’s kind of like Olin – people drop you in the deep end, and hold you accountable. When I first came to GE Aviation, I was in the Edison Engineering Development Program. There we were told, “…you own this part.” You owned that piece of hardware, or engine, and everything that has to do with that part. I always felt my team was there to support me, but in the end, I ‘owned’ it. That level of responsibility and trust has helped me achieve so much more.
You were in Germany with GE for a time, what was that like?
When I was at Olin, many of my friends studied abroad, and I wasn’t able to. Ever since then, I’ve been looking for opportunities to live and work internationally, hoping to better understand how a different culture works, and to use my language skills (I speak French). I would include my interest in a global experience in my annual development discussions. Then one day, a friend was visiting my plant from another part of the company, and she introduced me to her boss. “Jo would like to live in Europe.” He happened to have a job opening – not in France, but as a GE representative to Airbus in Hamburg, Germany where the A380 was being built. And so it came together!
My job was to be the technical point of contact for the engines on the A380, addressing the customers’ questions and concerns, inspecting the engines before taking delivery, supervising flight tests, troubleshooting and providing feedback. I ended up learning some German, which was how I communicated with the mechanics. I worked with customers from Emirates Airlines, Air France, and Korean Air, who were all buying our engines for the A380 aircraft.
In my time there, I met people from all over the world. I met locals who wanted to improve their English. I travelled all over Europe. There were definitely challenges – while many people in Germany speak English, not everyone does. I had an injury while I was there, and my doctors didn’t speak English. It gave me huge respect for the people who come to the states from other countries, where English is not their first language, and choose to make a life here. I was in Germany for two years – it was a fascinating experience.
What are some new initiatives that GE is undertaking?
Sure! Three of them come to mind.
Balance the Equation – GE is working hard to balance the number of women coming into technical roles. We are putting a lot of effort into recruiting, and engaging in K-12 STEM activities. By 2020, we want to have 50% of our engineering roles filled by women. That’s not very far away! But we’re getting there - already half the people coming into our Leadership Development Program here at GE Aviation are women.
GE Digital – A few years ago we created the GE Digital business unit. We had digital work going on in lots of different parts of the company, and we consolidated it all into one division. In our efforts to become a Top 10 company, we have created and are using our own software. It is up to each of us to give feedback on our products, hold the development teams accountable, doing sprints, and working in the ‘agile’ way. We need to adapt and iterate with the tools we are creating, improving the products as well as our processes.
GE Additive - Additive manufacturing is the process in which complex 3D components can be printed through addition of material, layer-by-layer. Additive manufacturing is often used for rapid prototyping, but has been extended to manufacturing of products, especially with the expansion in the number of materials developed for additive.
At GE Aviation, we began to use additive manufacturing to create metal engine parts, such as a combustor fuel nozzle, to reduce cost and weight. Our engineers are challenged to identify more opportunities in the engine where additive manufacturing can simplify the engine. We have more to do in this area, but we are making great progress. For example, the ATP (Advanced Turbo Prop) engine tested a 35% additive manufactured demonstrator engine – 855 parts were reduced to 12 through additive manufacturing. GE Additive was recently created to promote and provide this technology to the many industries it can benefit, including our competitors and customers.
What challenges do you find in your job?
The main one is work life balance. There are so many ways people look at that. Fortunately, I’ve been given flexibility in all my roles here, but we do work hard – there is so much to do! And the company has high expectations. So how do I find the balance? My friends and family hold me accountable, and that helps. If my husband says we’re having dinner at 6:30 – I try to be home by then. I also get involved with groups and activities outside of work, forcing me to leave at a reasonable hour to honor those commitments.
In addition, GE started a new program a couple years ago called ‘permissive time,’ which is basically unlimited vacation days (as long as my manager approves). And they don’t even count sick or personal time. So we can take time off when we need it, and are encouraged to do so.
What made you decide to get a Master’s while at GE?
Actually, earning a Master’s is part of the Edison program. Much of the coursework is taught by GE Aviation employees who are highly experienced in our field. Classes are often taught onsite, and our instructor might be a PhD teaching the specifics of jet engines. We also spent one full semester at the university, in my case that was the University of Cincinnati. I got paid to go to school full time!
My thesis was related to work I was doing here, and I was able to get help from the ‘experts’ in our research center. In addition, I did my Master’s with one group of people, and we became very close and still are today. I’ve attended their weddings and celebrated their new babies. Getting my Master’s during that time was intense, but doing it fresh out of school made it easier. I learned a ton, and became part of an amazing network of people from all parts of the company.
Do you think that Mechanical Engineers should get a master’s?
It was good for me, because I love to learn. The thesis work was great. But in general, I’ve seen a lot of ME’s advance, both inside and outside of GE, with just a Bachelor’s. To me, there’s always value in more education. There are things I learned during that time that I still use and hold on to.
You’ve had an impressive career since leaving Olin. Anything you wish you’d done differently?
For the first couple years, I was stressed out a lot. I feel like even though I had gotten over the feeling at Olin, I encountered the Imposter Syndrome all over again at GE. I could have saved myself a lot of stress and anxiety if I had just trusted the confidence and experience that I gained at Olin.
I also spent a lot of time in my years here trying to get GE to ‘notice’ Olin. Sometimes I wondered if it was ‘my place’ to promote Olin within GE. I now see how the right advocate can make a big difference. For us, that was University Relations Manager Cindy Hendricksen, who heard about Olin, came to visit, and started talking us up around the company. Recently Olin has been selected as one of its key schools in the Boston area and I’ve been designated the Campus Recruiting Leader for Olin. In this role, I coordinate the recruiting strategy with the executive team, and meet with Olin alumni and recruiters to plan activities that Olin and GE will do together.
How do you like living in Ohio? What do you do for fun?
Cincinnati has done a 180 since I moved here! When I first arrived, I read an article talking about how Cincinnati was ‘… at the bottom of the list for young professionals.” Since then, there has been a huge revitalization within the city, with a major emphasis on the arts. There’s so much to do, and people come here from all over the world, thanks to big companies like P&G, GE, and Johnson & Johnson.
I love the outdoors, and will often meet with friends to go backpacking in the Smokey Mountains or hiking through the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. People are so down to earth here – I see this at work too – always inviting you over to grill out.
Any final thoughts?
As I look back, I am really grateful for my experience at Olin. I have stayed in touch with so many classmates – we encourage each other and remain close and connected today. I often think about how my experience at Olin prepared me for each new challenge I would encounter. Whenever we take a new direction here at GE, it feels very ‘Olin-like.’ I think of how competencies were stressed there, not grades. There was always a level of trust we felt from our professors, an ‘agile’ way of working that I use here all the time. In so many ways, I’ve found the GE spirit similar to the one I learned at Olin.