Women have come a long way in manufacturing, but it’s still a long road

When SussexIM (Sussex, WI) recently hosted the local chapter of Women in Manufacturing (WiM), the group underscored the desire of both women professionals and manufacturing management to forge closer bonds, to the mutual benefit of all. An injection molding company with B-to-B and B-to-C capabilities with the addition of its new Sussex Brands division, SussexIM has experienced double-digit growth over the last five years. Like many other companies in the plastics processing industry, finding skilled, knowledgeable employees has become challenging.

women in manufacturingOne answer to that problem, which has been noted in a number of manufacturing articles recently, is to hire more women. “The manufacturing sector is changing, and fast,” said Teresa Schell, President and owner of the Milwaukee-based Vive LLC and head of the local WiM chapter. “Yes, it is still male-dominated. However, opportunities in manufacturing are growing for women—and in management, not only on the shop floor.”

More than two years ago, Megan Tzanoukakis joined SussexIM and was recently promoted to Manager 3PL (Third Party Logistics) of the company’s new B-to-C division, Sussex Brands. “As with innovation, cultural change begins at the top,” said Tzanoukakis. “Our company’s culture encourages all of us to do our best, in a collegial, creative environment. Unlike some of my colleagues who are pursuing careers in professional services, I’m not sitting behind a desk all day. I’m involved in both the strategy and the physical creation of real products found on store shelves. There’s a certain pride that goes with that, a feeling that, ‘Hey, I helped make that.’”

Keith Everson, owner and CEO of SussexIM, told PlasticsToday that manufacturing has moved beyond the “old days,” when schools had shop classes. “Shop became a taboo word and those programs got dropped. Everyone had to have a four-year degree,” commented Everson. “But that’s changing in the high schools now and, hopefully, it’s changing in higher education, as well. It has to change. We give tours here through the local schools, which are getting more involved in promoting manufacturing careers. The young women who are on these tours are very surprised at the opportunities for women in manufacturing.”

A problem that Tzanoukakis sees is that manufacturing classes in colleges and universities tend to be business directed and not promoted as a career a woman would enter right out of college. “I think more women would be interested in manufacturing if it were promoted as a career. It’s going in that direction, but just takes effort,” she said.

One of the advantages Tzanoukakis finds with a manufacturing career is that “you don’t sit behind your desk all day; you get to work with a lot of different disciplines,” she said. The cultural tone of manufacturing tends to be more collegial, more inventive than in professional services. I think women like an innovative environment.”

SussexIM’s Everson emphasized to PlasticsToday that when it comes to hiring he is “gender-blind” and hires “the best people for the job.” SussexIM employs many women in various positions from shift supervisors and set-up technicians on the production floor to Supply Chain Manager Christine Fenzl, who was instrumental in getting SussexIM to host the WiM event, and Gigi Cheung, SussexIM’s Production Scheduler.

“Company cultures have certainly evolved, as management realizes that women are manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent,” said Fenzl. “It’s not completely a man’s world any longer.”

Cheung added, “Today, manufacturing offers women job opportunities in management, especially as education and the perceptions about our sector adapt to today’s realities. In the years ahead, I foresee the number of women in manufacturing doubling. It’s not just a career for men anymore.”

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