To close manufacturing skills gap, train and hire more women

Representing nearly half of the labor force, women make up just over one quarter of the manufacturing workforce

“Women in manufacturing” is fast becoming a mantra for those seeking a way to close the skills gap. More and more articles, studies and commentaries are showing up in the mainstream media, as companies look for ways to engage and hire skilled workers.

Woman worker
Image courtesy katrinaelsi/flickr.

In a blog on the website of Cerasis, a logistics/transportation firm based in Eagen, MN, Adam Robinson outlined four ways to combat the skills gap ("If There’s a Manufacturing Skills Gap, How Do We Close It? 4 Ways to Combat the Gap"). One way, he wrote, is to hire more women and “eliminate gender-based inequality.” While Robinson said he didn’t want to get into the politics of gender equality, he did note that “women in the manufacturing industry will play a vital role in improving the manufacturing skills gap.”

Robinson also noted that various industries tend to be more female oriented, while others are more male oriented. He wrote that women are heavily involved as package and filling machine operators (56% of all workers in that industry are women). Meanwhile, the “majority of all welders—95%—working in manufacturing are men.”

That’s not a big surprise. Not many women apply for a welding position. Still, it’s not to say that there are no women welders. When freelancing for Welding magazine a number of years ago, I came across a young woman in Cincinnati who was tired of being a waitress working for less than minimum wage plus tips. She happened to see an ad for a nearby technical school looking for people to train as welders for a large global manufacturing firm in the area.

She applied, got in and when I interviewed her, she was doing her apprenticeship at this large company, and loving every minute of it. She found welding to be creative, well paid (journeyman welders can make well over $100,000 annually) and just downright fun! Her only complaint was that all the welding gear she had to wear was made for men, and she was a tiny, 5-foot, 100-lb. woman, so that even the smallest protective welding clothing was difficult to wear.

A 2015 study by Deloitte (“Women in Manufacturing Study: Exploring the Gender Gap”) revealed that women are manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent. “While women represent nearly half (47%) of the total U.S. labor force, they comprise less than a third (27%) of the manufacturing workforce,” said the study. “Across nearly every manufacturing sector in the United States, women are underrepresented.”

What do women want when they look for work? The Deloitte study noted three primary factors:

Flexibility. That is something many job seekers want today, both men and women and particularly millennials. For women, who tend to be the primary caregivers for children and many of whom are single moms, this flexibility becomes an even more important benefit.

Formal and informal mentoring and sponsorships. In an age when even many men are unfamiliar with today’s manufacturing industry, women, in particular, need to be shown what manufacturing is all about and how they navigate a career path.

Visible role models. There are many women in manufacturing, but they tend not to be as visible.

Meghan Hasse, Field Coordinator for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, recounted in a recent interview that she started out working in a paper factory in Wisconsin during college summer breaks, and knew she had come across a very special industry. “I found it very exciting to watch materials come together to make a final product,” she said. “There is a sense of pride in those who work in manufacturing. I have a love for 'made in the USA' . . . I work diligently each and every day to support American manufacturing.”

On the website of the M. Holland Co., a plastic resin distributor in Northbrook, IL, there is an article by Samantha Stone, who became the company’s first female product manager a year ago. “Although I didn’t focus on being the first woman on the products team, many others did. In my mind, it was just a great opportunity,” she wrote in the article (“Women in Plastics: One Manager’s Perspective on a Career in a Male Dominated Industry”).

Growing up in Akron, OH, Stone was familiar with the new polymer science building on the campus of the University of Akron, and eventually earned her BS in chemistry with a concentration in polymer science and a master’s in business administration.

“I cannot fully express the importance of working hard and climbing your way through an industry,” she commented in the article. “There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and value gained along the way. The experience gained from product design, quality testing, R&D, leadership positions, international sales, business management and strategic planning have contributed to who I am today.”

Of course women don’t necessarily need BS degrees in chemistry to find their entry point into the plastics manufacturing industry. As I’ve toured various plastics processing plants, I’ve met many women who started out as press operators and worked their way into supervisory and management positions by doing exactly what Samantha Stone did: Learn everything you can about every aspect of manufacturing and work hard.

I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed my nearly 35-year career in the plastics industry, working and learning from all of my colleagues, even though there weren’t many women in the injection molding and tooling sales end of the business during that time. I had a good friend who was a resin salesperson, and today there are many women in resin sales.

There are other benefits to being a woman in a male-dominated industry. For example when I go to many of the trade shows and conferences, I never have to stand in line at the women’s restroom!

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