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Increasing the Ranks of Women in Manufacturing

Through education and mentorship, women will be encouraged to pursue careers in today’s increasingly technological and innovative manufacturing industries.

Workforce Q2 2018
Pamela Kan is president of Bishop-Wisecarver, Pittsburg, Calif., a developer of innovative motion solutions.
Pamela Kan is president of Bishop-Wisecarver, Pittsburg, Calif., a developer of innovative motion solutions.
As a woman who runs a second-generation manufacturing and engineering company, I am a bit of an anomaly — a disruption to the normal pattern we tend to classify as “manufacturing.” One of my professional and personal goals is to change that notable distinction and, to that end, I talk with students, parents, educators, government officials, and colleagues to learn, brainstorm, and engage in efforts that will make a difference.

It’s an exciting time to be in U.S. manufacturing as the industry is experiencing incredible growth, supports 17.6 million jobs, is considered the world’s eighth-largest economy, and provides above average salaries. Yet, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014) notes that while women represent nearly half of the total U.S. labor force (47 percent), they comprise less than a third (27 percent) of the manufacturing jobs. These low overall numbers translate to low numbers of women in leadership positions within the manufacturing industry. According to 2016 data (as cited by IndustryWeek) from Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, women working in the U.S. manufacturing durable goods sector represent only 5 percent of CEOs, and 20 percent of executive officers.

With such obvious perks for the overall economy and individuals, why are we looking at a lack of women in the manufacturing industry? And more importantly, what can we do now to see a significant change in these numbers? I believe the key areas of focus should be education in our schools, where we can dispel the persistent myths of manufacturing and create a cultural shift in the industry that encourages current women in the industry to step up and be the brand we want young women to emulate.

Education Takes the Lead
How do we change this stagnation of women in manufacturing to adoption of manufacturing as a strong, viable career? At the start of the pipeline, the education must start early. Increasing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education participation and proficiency for girls starting in elementary school is a critical first step. Manufacturers must come together to create positive exposure and experiences for women at a young age. When students have some knowledge of the opportunities in manufacturing, their interest in pursuing it as a career rises exponentially. One successful program is the FIRST Robotics Competition that provides hands-on learning using math and engineering to promote STEM-based learning. According to FIRST statistics:
  • Those who have participated in FIRST are 2x as likely to major in science or engineering;
  • 33 percent of girls participating in FIRST plan to major in engineering; and
  • More than 75 percent of FIRST participants are in a STEM field as a student or professional.
Mentors in the school are another important factor for success. According to “Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” by the American Association of University Women in 2010, “Mentorship is often cited as a key strategy for exciting, supporting, and keeping students and young scientists and engineers in the fields of STEM. This is particularly true for individuals who haven’t historically participated in these areas — such as young women and underrepresented minorities.” The Million Women Mentor program was developed for “Advancing Women and Girls in STEM Careers Through Mentoring,” and they found that 20 percent of current female high school students interested in a STEM discipline say they would like to learn more about mentoring and motivational programs to help prepare them for the future.

Women already working in manufacturing have to be the brand we want others to see. Another important aspect to this education component is having teachers and counselors discuss viable careers in the manufacturing industry with their students. There are literally hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs that pay higher-than-average wages and require training that often takes less than two years. Manufacturing offers a strong career path and multiple benefits, but many schools focus only on four-year colleges. While these are clearly great learning institutions, they aren’t the only option. I meet so many students that would be a tremendous asset to the manufacturing industry but didn’t realize it was even an opportunity. While most schools no longer have classes encouraging trade skills, they can — and should — still discuss these skills and how they are now technologically advanced to help in this industry.

The STEM programs, mentors, and events such as National Manufacturing Day, Junior Achievement job-shadowing, career fairs, etc. all play a role in showcasing the benefits of manufacturing and providing hands-on, real insight that could change the minds and career paths of a significant number of young women. The statistics, and my own personal observations, are in total agreement — when young women are given hands-on STEM education, counseling that includes manufacturing options, and have the opportunity to be mentored, their interest in manufacturing is significant.

How to Dispel the Myths of Manufacturing
We clearly have a branding problem when it comes to attracting women to manufacturing, and this problem affects all parts of the skills pipeline in channeling women into this industry. So many students (and adults) still see manufacturing as dark, dirty facilities where workers suffer through hours of rote motions with monstrously big, greasy equipment. That couldn’t be further from the current realities, and those of us in manufacturing need to showcase this in every way possible.

• Technology — Manufacturing in 2018 means technologically advanced machinery, modern buildings designed to help teams of employees collaborate and communicate more easily, and includes the use of robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things, just to name a few. Millennials have been raised with technology as part of every aspect of their lives, and understanding that it plays an important role in manufacturing will help them see this as a more viable career option. From hardware to software and everything in between, the technology advancements in manufacturing are constant and require workers who can keep adapting.

• Innovation — Manufacturing isn’t a career where you check your brain at the door. It needs great problem-solvers who can work to meet current customers’ needs, while also developing new innovations for future concerns. A 2014 Deloitte/The Manufacturing Institute report found that 78 percent of millennials said their decision to work at a company was influenced by how innovative they considered the company to be. Don’t miss that number or its importance. The majority of young workers are selecting their future employers based on perceived innovation. Manufacturing is all about innovation — it’s what we do all day, every day.

• Making a Difference — Millennials also value the chance to make a difference. Engineers at my company have all said — many times — that what they most love about the manufacturing industry is the ability to take their schooling and innate interests and make a difference by creating something new that can help a customer. This is what millennials want and manufacturing offers this opportunity. We need to be shouting this out a little louder!

A Culture Shift
Increasing the number of women in our industry also means that manufacturers must look at themselves and their own cultures. We must change our male-dominated culture to focus on the attraction, recruitment, retention, and advancement of women through our organizations. Being open to flexible work schedules is a requirement to attract and retain women. Also, women want the ability to move up the ranks into roles of leadership and to enjoy challenging, meaningful work.

We clearly have a branding problem when it comes to attracting women to manufacturing, and this problem affects all parts of the skills pipeline in channeling women into this industry. Providing these benefits not only helps increase the number of women in the industry, but it makes positive financial sense to change. Research proves organizations with diverse leadership are more profitable. A 2004 study by Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with high percentages of women officers had a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return than companies with fewer women executives. Those numbers are significant.

Be the Brand
For women already working in manufacturing, we have to BE the brand we want others to see. We must support programs and efforts to promote careers in manufacturing for women. We are the ones who can show the next generations the full potential of the manufacturing industry — higher salaries, strong benefits, and challenging and rewarding work. What they see in us today will make a difference in their future and ours. Catalyst, mentioned above, also noted a positive correlation between the percentage of women board directors in the past leading to a higher number of women corporate officers in the future. Women in leadership roles bring more women to the industry.

We need to make the effort to reach out to younger women within the industry as role models, coaches, and mentors. Even more so, we need to be vocal advocates and enhance mentees and other women’s presence in the organization. There are so many groups focused on helping women in business and helping women in STEM fields and manufacturing. To name just a few, check out Women’s Business Enterprise Council-Pacific, Million Women Mentors, FIRST Robotics Competition, Women In Manufacturing, Women’s President Organization, and National Association of Manufacturers.

When we focus on early STEM education, dispel the myths of manufacturing, change our corporate cultures, and have successful women manufacturing leaders helping other women, I am confident we will see women hit a true growth stage of impact and influence within the manufacturing sector.

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