Smashing Stereotypes: Donna Gowland

An unconventional route into finding a dream STEM career

Donna Gowland

Continuous Improvement Manager, 3M 

An apprenticeship with global, science-based technology company 3M has taken Donna on a journey of personal and professional growth.


Growing up, I wanted to be a primary school teacher but realised halfway through my A-Levels that taking the traditional study route of school into higher education wasn’t for me. Although I enjoyed Maths and Chemistry at school, I was less interested in other subjects like physics and biology.

I knew I wanted to look at some alternative paths to find my dream career by going out into the world and learning ‘on-the-job’, as they say!

I applied for the apprentice scheme at 3M and discovered that my school friend, Michelle, who was from the same village in County Durham where I grew up, had applied too. There were 80 applicants for just two positions. And remarkably, we were over the moon to both secure one each!

As part of our three-year apprenticeship, Michelle and I studied for NVQ (national vocational qualifications) through a local training company part-time and we went on to be jointly named ‘Apprentice of the Year’.

This gave me the confidence to know that I could achieve more, so I decided to study for a degree in business administration by going to university part-time. Although it was hard work, particularly in the final year when I had to write a dissertation, I enjoyed the fact that I was gaining valuable experience in the workplace at the same time as studying.

Donna smiling

My colleagues and managers were very supportive throughout my apprenticeship and while I was studying for my degree, I was offered a number of opportunities to progress – even travelling abroad!  Early on in the apprenticeship, I was asked to help out in the shipping office and this led to me being offered the role of raw materials planner.

Another supply chain role followed as a planning team leader for finished goods. I loved the variety of this role and it was my first chance to put the management skills that I had learned in theory into real-life practice.

Fast forward to today, I work at the company’s Aycliffe plant near Durham where we manufacture respirators used to protect front-line healthcare and industrial workers.

As a Continuous Improvement Manager, I work with production engineering, quality, and maintenance teams. We use management tools, known as Lean Six Sigma, that help to optimise our manufacturing processes by reducing variation and removing defects.

Donna inspecting a 3M product

I have two children, Saul who is 14 and nine-year-old daughter Lois – and I’ve always been able to combine work with raising a family. I was actually offered two different jobs on my return from taking a year off when Saul was born. I opted to train as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt (for more on this, check out Jaipal’s Smashing Stereotypes profile, think ‘black belt’ – but in science!) This led to my current leadership role in process improvement which involves traveling across Europe and has opened up a number of opportunities, such as getting involved in strategic planning – I have never looked back!

My advice to students considering their future career is to study subjects that you genuinely like and are passionate about. Always follow your interests.

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