Kansas City, MO

It was a hot day when I met with Mackenzie Lewin, and so we first headed to a soda shop in an enchanting part of Kansas City, Missouri, near the historic River Market. We found a small table out back behind a cafe to sit and chat. Mackenzie knew early on she had a proclivity toward engineering and the mechanics of things. She described what it was like to take on a career path in a field dominated by men and, even at her relatively young age, already has a mind toward helping young girls feel more comfortable getting into the field.

In a time when young people have a more entrepreneurial attitude toward work, Mackenzie’s hard-working, know-what-I-want-to-do approach paints an interesting portrait of someone who looks different from, but somehow also similar to, the traditional engineer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Josh Rose: Who are you, what do you do, and what was your path here?

Mackenzie Lewin: My name is Mackenzie Lewin, and I’m a mechanical engineer — mechanical design engineer to be super specific — and I’m 23.

I was born in San Diego, California on a naval base. My dad was in the Navy. We only lived there until, I was two, two-and-a-half-ish.

My parents are from Missouri, though. So, we moved back and pretty much stayed in Missouri, just moving through different cities within. Then I did college in Warrensburg, at the University of Central Missouri (UCM), where I got a degree in engineering technology.

I knew I wanted to go into the mechanical field since I was 12.

How did you know?

My dad works on cars and was a big influence. He didn’t actually do that in the Navy. He was just kind of a Cadet, but he and my grandfather, they’re very mechanical, jack-of-all-trade types. So I watched them work on cars, electronics, and stuff like that. So I learned from them.

After being in school and typing all the time, I wanted to do something creative that didn’t keep me at a desk all day, and I like cars.

I started working on cars in high school, doing automotive technology one and two, and became a certified mechanic .The first car I wanted when I was younger, was a ’71 Nova. Just like the one that Clarice has in “Silence of The Lambs.” I absolutely love that car.

So what do you do in your current job?

I work for a company that designs, builds, and manufactures assembly lines and conveyor belts for other larger manufacturing companies like Tesla, Ford, Chevy, and Nissan.

So they tell us what they need to do like, “In our paint shop, we want to transfer the car from here to there, and it has to be waterproof.” So we set up the stages and the motors and the structure, and make sure people can access the car as it goes from A to B.

We have to go to the site and take a full assessment of the area so we know all of our restrictions. Like, if there’s a column in the middle of the room, we have to know about it so we can design around it. A lot of times, we end up going back and forth to and from the location. Sometimes there’s new things that you didn’t take into account initially.

What kind of new technologies are you using?

We have a 3-D imaging system.

You know the Kinect, the Xbox Kinect? How it shoots the little laser dots on you to catch your movement? It’s kind of like that.

You set it on the floor, and it shoots little laser dots out everywhere so it can make a digital rendering of the exact room. So you can see all of the dimensions. It’s supposed to be pretty darn accurate.

We haven’t fully shifted over to utilize this type of technology because it’s so new.

What is a typical day like?

I go in at 7:00 a.m., I leave at 3:30 p.m. almost every day. I always report to my boss first. If he wants me to stay on the job I’m currently working on, or if he wants me to assist somebody else. At this point I’m mostly assisting.

I’m doing a lot of the drawing and design work. Drawing CAD models and just dimension sheets for them to work off in the shop. If there’s any kind of interference or something doesn’t end up turning out right in the shop, a lot of times I’ll have to go out and take measurements to physically see what’s going on.

What’s the career path like from here?

I’ve put a lot of thought into that. I’ve considered the option of going back to school in the next few years, for my doctorate in aerospace engineering. That’s not set in stone yet, but I’d like to do it before I’m 30.

Some companies that I’d like to work towards in that field are SpaceX and NASA. I’m kind of hoping since we work with Tesla a little bit, I can have that nice little nod. I really like the direction that SpaceX is going. They’ve got some really cool projects that I’d be interested in.

I could grow on the job. A lot of engineering positions within a company allow you to grow and you can end up being grandfathered into them.

A lot of people that I work with currently may have only an associate’s degree or no degree at all, but they’re engineers at my job. Maybe they started when the company was new, and had experience as a machinist or something. Then whenever they come out with engineering software, they’ll just teach them as they go.

How well does the job provide for you financially?

It’s enough to pay all of our bills, including my student loans. If we budget right, we can save enough to put towards a house in a year. So I think that’s pretty darn good for a starting position. Really good benefits too, 401K.

Also, they have their engineers all on hourly instead of salary, which I don’t think is typical. But they do it to make sure that when we do overtime, which tends to be a lot, we get paid time and a half.

There are times, when we’re working really hard to finish up a job that we’ll do 60 hour weeks. It’s nice to get paid for that.

Tell me about being a female in a male dominated field?

Well, since I’m still pretty new to the field, it is kind of weird to tell people that I’m an engineer, especially because a lot of times I end up being the youngest one in the room. It sounds like a high schooler coming in and saying you’re an engineer.

Although, of course they see me as an actual adult. Like, a real one. I’ve been trying to get to the point where I feel more like a colleague with my co-workers because in most engineering companies, there’s a lot of senior citizens. That’s why there’s a big influx in advertising for the engineering field. We need young blood. Everyone is a lot deeper into the field than I am. It’s hard for me to see myself as a colleague, but I am.

There’s only one other female who works in my department. She is technically engineering support staff, so she has enough know-how to help with filing and making parts lists and stuff like that. But she doesn’t do any of the design work herself.

I take it as an opportunity to represent myself and my gender.