Fairygodboss

Jennifer Mercer, General Manager of the Joffre Nitrogen Operations at Nutrien, is responsible for overseeing the ammonia production facility to ensure that her team produces and ships their product in the most efficient and reliable way. She’s also in charge of making sure that everyone who sets foot on the central Alberta site — each employee, contractor, and visitor — safely goes home to their families every day. Jennifer talked with Fairygodboss on how she became a leader in a male-dominated workspace — and how she’s continued to lead through the pandemic.

What’s your current role, and what did your career path look like prior to being in this role?

I oversee an operation that produces and ships liquid ammonia and has a staff of 35 operators, maintenance technicians, engineers, buyers, safety, and administration personnel. Prior to this role, I was the maintenance superintendent at the Redwater Nitrogen Operations north of Edmonton, overseeing an employee and contractor team of maintenance technicians. My first role with Nutrien started in 2012, where I led the Capital Projects team at Redwater. My team was responsible for planning, engineering, budgeting, scheduling, resourcing, and executing the majority of the site’s capital project portfolio. My career started as a process engineer for a pulp and paper company on the east coast of Canada. In 2003, I relocated to the west coast of Canada, staying in the pulp and paper industry. I had many positions over my nine years with this company, including engineering, supply management, operations, and most interesting, Research & Development (R&D). I became the site Energy Manager responsible for implementing energy reduction projects at the largest energy-consuming facility in the province. 

The current pandemic has upended the workplace and home life for almost everyone. What’s changed for you in terms of your goals, day-to-day responsibilities, and leading your team?

Nothing has really changed for me regarding our safety mandate, I just do things differently with respect to managing a team during a pandemic. Day-to-day operation is not just about my team members anymore, it’s also about their families, their mental health and wellness, their fears, their personal health, and their comfort in knowing that I do care. 

The pandemic has a huge potential to impact us greatly, and I have committed to do everything I can to help ensure no one gets sick. I spend a lot of my time talking and listening to my team members and trying to think of new and different ways to keep everyone focused. It’s a challenge to be creative but it’s worth the effort. 

What resources or support has your company offered you during the crisis?

Nutrien has an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) that offers everything from therapy and counselling to assisting with finding home contractors. The EFAP services are available 24/7, and are for an entire family, not just the employee. Nutrien has also established flexible work schedules, knowing that while people are working from home, they may need time during the day to deal with family issues.  

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry often comes with a set of challenges. What are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

I have worked my entire career in male-dominated industries. I don’t try to be “one of the guys,” but I also don’t accept any gender-biased behavior — at least not anymore. I have developed the confidence to call out those discriminating moments when they occur, but it has taken a lot of time getting to this point. Unfortunately, there is gender bias for women working in industry that needs to be addressed almost daily. I’ve had to deal with catcalls, disparaging language, disbelief that I can complete certain tasks of my job, and being asked, “Really?” when introducing myself in my current role. It’s frustrating and exhausting, but it’s imperative not to give up on battling through to correct the behaviors.

I try to make as much time as possible for female employees, regardless of position. I mentor several female engineers and am the co-chair of one of Nutrien’s employee resource groups for women – Women in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles (WiNTER). I model behavior that I needed to see when I was younger so other women can have the confidence to sit at the table, to speak up in meetings, to lead projects and assignments, and be recognized for their efforts.

What women inspire you the most?  Do you have any heroes who were trailblazers in their lives and work?

My mother and grandmother are my personal heroes. My mother quit high school just months from graduating because her father told her she didn’t need an education to be a wife. She went back to high school to receive her diploma the year my older brother also graduated from high school. She struggled with the math and science classes but didn’t give up and graduated with honors.

 My grandmother was the same. She never drove a day in her life and relied completely on my grandfather for getting around town. Then my grandfather passed away suddenly. She quickly learned she hated to rely on others, so she decided to learn how to drive. She took lessons and she passed the test on the first attempt when she was 65. 

The sense of freedom that my mother and grandmother experienced was a big inspiration in my life that made me determined to not rely on someone else for money or the ability to get around. 

What’s your favorite benefit or perk working at Nutrien?

I was selected to participate in a women’s leadership program. I met some truly amazing women across different divisions of our company that I never would have met otherwise. I chose to give back and organized a student conference for high school females in the area. The students spent the day listening and interacting with female leaders in the community. The conference has doubled in size in two years. I have educators from schools previously not involved calling to ask how their students can be involved, and it’s now expanding to other communities. This is something that would never have happened for me if it wasn’t for a leader having confidence in my ability to become one of Nutrien’s leaders, and for that I am very thankful.

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