Manufacturing Growth Holds Less Promise for Women

women and manufacturing

Today in the United States more women graduate college, they make up nearly half of the working population, and one-third of women out-earn their spouse.

So why are women losing their footing in the manufacturing sector?

A report released this week by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., vice chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC) seeks to answer this question.

The report finds that although manufacturing added over 500,000 jobs between 2010 and 2013, women have largely been excluded from that growth.

Over the same period—from 2010-2013—woman have lost 28,000 jobs in manufacturing and currently make up only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce, the lowest since the 1970s.

Manufacturing remains the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, accounting for 12 percent of GDP, 70 percent of R&D and 90 percent of patents in this country, and when the full force of the re-shoring trend hits, those numbers could rise.

Increased U.S. productivity and rising labor costs in countries such as China have led companies like Caterpillar, GE and Ford to relocate to the U.S., and foreign companies like Lenovo and BASF are choosing to set up shop in the U.S. too.

Conversely, U.S. manufacturers are struggling to find skilled workers to replace an aging workforce— more than half of all manufacturing employees are 45 or older. The changing manufacturing climate and workforce shortage provides a unique opportunity for woman to step up.

“Manufacturing is key to moving our economy forward, and we need all of our country’s talent—both men and women—to fill the jobs of tomorrow that our businesses are creating today,” Klobuchar said this week when she presented the report.

The need is clear, but how we get more women into manufacturing is a hotly debated question.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for girls is a good start, and we’re investing considerable resources in this area. But it’s by no means the whole picture.

Over the last 40 years, 42 percent of all STEM degrees went to women. However, women only make up 27 percent of the STEM workforce. Clearly this is telling us that it’s something more than education keeping women out of manufacturing and related sectors. 

Traditionally, women have made up a smaller part of the manufacturing workforce, and when they do enter the manufacturing arena they tend to gravitate towards production or administrative jobs and steer away from other areas.

There could be myriad reasons for this. One being the perception that manufacturing is largely physical unskilled labor.

A recent survey found that only 56 percent of Americans believe that manufacturing jobs and clean and safe. Yet this is largely a misconception. Modern technology has transformed the manufacturing floor into a clean space where hard physical labor is no longer necessary, and there are currently 600,000 open manufacturing positions requiring advanced skills.

With only 35 percent of Americans saying they’d encourage their children to get a manufacturing job, manufactures must work harder to dispel their gritty image.

In 2012 Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute interviewed 600 women in the manufacturing sector in an attempt to understand drivers and obstacles in that industry. The study indicates that we still have a long way to go.

Of the woman interviewed by Deloitte, 70 percent said they would encourage their sons to go into manufacturing while only 55 percent would do the same for their daughters. Only one of five respondents believed that manufacturing does a good job of presenting itself to women, especially those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The study suggests that putting more women in leadership roles within the manufacturing sector would have a trickle-down effect and make manufacturing both more accessible and attractive to other women. Support in the workplace—through sponsorship, continuing education, and flexible work hours—would also result in higher recruitment and retention of women, according to the Deloitte study.

Clearly, significant adjustments need to be made within the manufacturing sector if it wishes to meet its full potential in coming years. Our education system too must change. A renewed emphasis on vocational and technical colleges, versus 4-year colleges, is required to provide a more diverse labor force. And, perhaps most significantly, attitudes towards where women do and do not belong must to evolve.

Are you employed in the manufacturing sector? How can we encourage more women to take jobs in manufacturing?

About Nancy Pardo

Nancy Pardo is a Seattle-based writer and editor. She holds an MA in Professional Writing. She began her career as a Washington DC-area reporter, moving on to become an editor and contributor for several top industry magazines in the U.S. and the Middle East. Nancy currently works for PTC as content marketing director and manages the company's award-winning blog Product Lifecycle Stories.
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