Attracting Women to Manufacturing Still a Challenge

Driven by more competitive labor market, lower energy costs and the re-shoring movement, American manufacturing has been able to grow by about 600,000 jobs in the last four years, reversing a decades-long negative trend. Manufacturing registered a 55.4 percent PMI for May 2014, marking an expansion for the 12th consecutive month.

Yet although there is solid growth across the nation, many manufacturers are still struggling to meet labor needs, as evidenced by The U.S. Department of Labor, which shows that there were 241,000 open manufacturing jobs in March, 2014.

President Obama has attempted to use federal dollars to help strengthen technical colleges and recruit more people to pursue jobs in manufacturing, but despite these efforts a resource that could help address these problems is being highly underutilized.

“Amidst all the promising signs in U.S. manufacturing, one disparity continues to make headlines,” reads a memo from the United States Congress. “The recent job gains in manufacturing have been largely among men.”

Women, despite outperforming men in higher education credentials and making up about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, only account for about 25 percent of manufacturing workers, according to data from women’s advocacy group Catalyst. And while the number of men employed in manufacturing between 2010 and 2013 grew by 7 percent, the number of women fell by 0.3 percent.

According to Allison Grealis, the director of Women in Manufacturing (WiM), a 400-member group that aims to attract and retain women in the industrial sector, this under-representation is mostly caused by outdated perceptions.

Despite advances in gender equality in recent decades, there is a long-standing view of manufacturing as having a male-centered culture that implicitly excludes women from attaining core managerial roles. In fact, a study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute cites this belief as a key driver of women not entering the industry.

Another factor that is leading to the gender gap is a lack of understanding around modern manufacturing. “Too often they think of it as their father’s manufacturing; still un-modern, dirty, dark, dingy, and not a place for women,” Grealis says. “That it requires a whole bunch of girth and heavy lifting, and that it’s not a very pleasant place to work.”

In reality, modern manufacturing is an incredibly different sector than the stereotypes suggest. Companies are now more high-tech, utilizing equipment that is computer controlled and automated. And modern manufacturers need to work more with their mind, and not worry about having brute force. Excellent science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and problem solving skills are now necessities in this industry.

“It’s less about brute force and getting your hands dirty and more about use of advanced technology and design,” says Jennifer Bass, who bought Essve Tech, a manufacturer of corrugated steel pipes in Alpharetta, Ga., in 2004. “This has really leveled the playing field.”

The Manufacturing Institute study, which surveyed 600 women with manufacturing jobs, finds that women working in these fields are extremely satisfied with their job, with about 75 percent of respondents stating that their manufacturing career is interesting and rewarding.

“The main reason we hear from women for why they love manufacturing is that it’s exciting,” Grealis says. “There’s a lot of on-the-job problem solving, you get to work with a lot of great teams and you get to work in a lot of new technologies, like 3D printing and all the automation and robotics. It’s never a dull day.”

Focusing on the positive gains a manufacturing career can bring is only one step toward recruiting more women into the sector. Probably the first and most important action is to place more women in leadership roles within the manufacturing world.

“You know, it’s difficult to envision yourself in an industry when you don’t see many like you in there,” Grealis explains. “As you open The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, you’re hearing about the high performing manufacturing companies, but too often you’re not hearing from the key women who are involved with these companies.”

Pamela Kan, president of the Bishop-Wisecarver Group, also believes it’s important to showcase women in leadership roles, especially when encouraging younger girls to enter manufacturing. “We need to give girls aspirations—something they can dream about,” she says. “We need to make ourselves more visible and accessible to the next generation.”

This is where initiatives like WiM’s Hear Her Story can make a difference. The blog showcases the daily lives of women in manufacturing—what it looks like for them at work, who are they, and how they got into manufacturing. Testimonials, like welder instructor Sue Silverstein’s, gives women today a real glimpse into how women experience manufacturing:

“The environment in manufacturing today is very different from when I started out,” Silverstein says in an April 2014 post. “It’s much better for young women. My male students don’t bat an eye about having a female instructor or female classmates.”

Mentorship and sponsorship programs are also incredibly important in helping bridge the gender gap, and also an effective tactic to support women’s advancement into leadership roles. Recent research shows that individuals who have the active support of sponsors within their organization are more likely to advance in their careers and see an increase in stretch assignments, promotions, and pay raises.

According to Million Women Mentors, high quality mentoring programs that connect young women with female professionals can increase the number of women who pursue and succeed in STEM careers. In fact, having these successful female role models could be the key to countering the negative stereotypes associated with industries like manufacturing—young girls seeing successful women in leadership positions can inspire them to take a similar career path.

“The skills shortage facing U.S. manufacturers is apparent, and the under-representation of women only contributes to the gap,” says Jennifer McNelly, president of The Manufacturing Institute. “We must empower each other as ambassadors of the industry so we can inspire the next-generation of young women to pursue manufacturing careers and encourage current female talent within the industry.”

Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

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