Jeff Fain believes Eastman can’t afford to leave manufacturing talent on the sidelines.

“Great employees have many forms,” he said. “It brings new perspectives and gets you the best of the best when you have diversity of thought.”

He would know. If not for one opportunity, he could have been left on the sidelines himself.

From an entry level manufacturing role to recruiting the next generation of Eastman’s manufacturing workforce, Fain’s 30-plus-year career has come full circle. And he's driven by a passion to create a more diverse, inclusive workplace.

A need for manufacturing work

Coming out of the pandemic, Eastman faced a notable decrease in the manufacturing talent pool. Fain saw an opportunity to address this through a comprehensive manufacturing recruitment and workforce development strategy. It included increasing Eastman’s presence in local high schools, and he knew his background would help. One initiative was Eastman’s work-based learning (WBL) program at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Tennessee.

The first cohort of six interns began in 2021. Mentored by Fain and his team, they gain real-world manufacturing experience while earning high school credits and good pay. They also learn about safety, quality, production and career opportunities at Eastman.

His role and the program merge Fain's various experiences at the company with his passion for engaging young people and giving them an opportunity — which he once needed himself.

Looking for an opportunity

After traveling the world with the Army, Fain wanted to return home and raise a family in Kingsport. He started at Eastman in 1992 as an entry-level operator apprentice and worked his way up to leadership role as a manufacturing team manager for 13 years.

Fain loved his role but knew he had probably reached his peak at Eastman without a college degree. Yet he wanted to continue growing his career at the company and be a role model to his children.

He earned his associate degree, bachelor’s and MBA in seven years, working full-time and taking no time off between academic programs.

His new degrees opened up new doors at Eastman.

“All I ever wanted was an opportunity,” he said. “I could do the rest, but I needed someone else to give me that opportunity.”

He was hired in his first corporate role as a pricing supervisor. The team needed someone who could be a leader – supporting employees’ career development.

Engaging next-generation manufacturers

Fain’s passion for supporting others is his greatest strength and a huge factor in the success of the WBL program.

In addition to expanding the program to other high schools and Eastman manufacturing sites, he also wants to grow diversity within manufacturing. That’s been important to him for years as a member of multiple Eastman resource groups (ERGs). These groups help underrepresented team members grow professionally, network with colleagues and excel in their roles.

“From the start, I said I wanted to make sure we’re the Eastman we say we are — providing opportunities, valuing and respecting people, and providing onboarding and training that supports employees,” Fain said. "I know Eastman cares about inclusion and diversity, and I know we have great people here. This helps us show Eastman cares about these topics.”

Fain is working with the ERGs to encourage diverse high school candidates to apply. He hopes they can advocate for their communities and entice students of all backgrounds to consider manufacturing roles.

He also believes allyship is a huge factor in supporting diversity and inclusion, and allies within the ERG communities can help lead to more successful initiatives.

“My own journey has been impacted by people who didn't look like me, but they saw something in me and made the investment in my career,” he said.

Ultimately, Fain hopes the WBL program leaves a legacy and inspires new generations of students to work hard and advocate for themselves.

Jeff Fain with two former work-based learning students beside him.

Ryder Brown (left) and Vincent Salyer (right) recently completed the work-based learning program, directed by Jeff Fain (center). Brown and Salyer became full-time Eastman employees after graduation in 2023.