Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘Underdog’ Sharon Hewitt, former engineer, hopes her path leads to governor’s office

by BIZ Magazine

By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

Sharon Hewitt said the impact she made with her local parent-teacher association in Slidell inspired her to enter politics in 2015, but she was far from just another mother active in her children’s school. In an interview with the Illuminator, Hewitt said her unique background makes her the best choice for Louisiana’s next governor.

Born and raised in Lake Charles, Hewitt said she doesn’t remember her parents discussing politics very much. Her father was an engineer, and her mother was a science and math teacher. She always thought she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a teacher, but she chose her father’s path when she realized he made a lot more money.

Hewitt graduated valedictorian from Barbe High School and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from LSU, where she was one of the few women in the program.

“You kind of get numb to that after a while,” Hewitt said about continuously being the only female in a given situation. “You don’t notice it as much as everybody else.”

After graduation, she landed a job with Shell and spent her first year living and working on an offshore drilling rig. She was an outlier at the time as the only woman the company had working offshore. Rigs weren’t set up to accommodate anyone other than men; there were no separate living quarters or showers for women.

Hewitt recalled having to sleep in a room with five men and zero privacy. There were no dividers, curtains or even a bathroom she could lock to get dressed. Doors couldn’t have locks on rigs because of the fire hazard, she said.

During her first seven-day stint offshore, Hewitt said she avoided showering but knew that wasn’t a sustainable option. When she got home, she devised a simple solution and purchased a 40-cent piece of rope. During her next deployment, she waited until the showers were empty and used the rope to tie two doors together, preventing anyone from entering. She also wore a bathing suit to shower, just in case.

“Engineers always have a backup plan,” Hewitt said. “I learned how to manage in good times or bad.”

Hewitt moved to Slidell in 1984 with her husband, Stan, who is also an engineer in the oil industry.

She spent 20 years at Shell, climbing the career ladder to become a company executive who managed hundreds of employees and teams that built and operated drilling rigs.

At the height of her career, she said she faced a dilemma familiar to many women. One of her sons was in third grade and struggling to learn his multiplication tables, so she left her job in 1999 to spend more time with her kids.

“I thought it was my fault,” Hewitt said.

For the next 15 years, she was a full-time mom and got involved with her local PTA, building playgrounds across Slidell. Those efforts helped bridge her career at Shell to a foray into Louisiana politics.

Hewitt was appointed to a voluntary position on the St. Tammany Parish Recreation Board for the Slidell area from 2012 to 2015. From there, she went on to win her first election for the Louisiana Senate District 1 seat, which includes Slidell and Pearl River along with portions of Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

A successful campaign would make Hewitt the second female governor of Louisiana and the first female Republican to hold the position. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, served as governor from 2004 to 2008, pulling off a surprising upset as an underestimated candidate — something Hewitt identifies with.

“I’ve been an underdog all my life in everything I’ve done,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said she ran for Louisiana Senate primarily to improve the state’s education system and economy after watching her children leave the state for college and their careers.

It’s a problem Louisiana has struggled to fix — educated young adults fleeing the state for opportunities elsewhere. Hewitt said it is what she would focus on as governor.

“We need a better education system,” she said.

As a state senator, Hewitt has sponsored a host of education-related legislation. She authored a bill in 2017 that led to more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in public schools. Last year, she spearheaded the creation of a task force that is working on ways to expand computer science in K-12 schools and at state universities.

Hewitt also sponsored a controversial bill last year that would have created education savings accounts for second- and third-grade families whose children cannot read. It would have allowed them to attend private schools on the taxpayer’s dime. If a parent withdrew their child from a public school, the state would have redirected the tax dollars from that particular school into a savings account that the parent could then access and use for private education expenses.

Proponents touted it as a form of school choice that would provide opportunities for kids who are struggling to read. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed the bill, saying it would “allow the children of wealthy parents to attend private schools subsidized by taxpayer dollars” and potentially allow those parents to deduct the education expenses from their taxes “even though the funds were provided by the taxpayers.”

During the same legislative session, Hewitt spearheaded legislation that opened up school choices for high school students who pursue dual-enrollment toward a college degree or in an apprenticeship program. The law, which took effect June 17, allows such students to enroll in a program of their choice offered within their district without regard to attendance zones if the program isn’t offered at their school.

It also encourages schools to work with colleges and local businesses to develop more programs that lead to careers in high-demand, high-paying fields. The law also works to ensure such programs are evenly distributed among high schools within a school district.

“We need opportunities for students to go into the workforce after high school, which will also help fill the workforce gap,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said she supports higher pay for teachers and wants to see more programs from the state’s regional STEM centers that will encourage and facilitate women to go into STEM careers. The gender pay gap is partly attributed to the types of jobs women are taking, she said.

“Women are choosing careers that are on lower pay scales,” she said. “We need to encourage more women to go into STEM fields.”

Hewitt said she has a unique set of skills that are directly applicable to running state government, negotiating economic development deals, and understanding and managing large budgets. Louisiana needs to do a better job of studying and forecasting the types of industries that will be in high demand in the future, she said, then the state can then begin to educate and train workforces for those industries.

“You need a skilled workforce before businesses will come,” Hewitt said. 

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