As we look at the numbers of women in manufacturing, it seems they should be part of the “growth stage” of the talent skills life cycle. Women were introduced into the workforce, and more specifically manufacturing, in unprecedented numbers during World War I. Their numbers rose to about 19% in 1918, and with World War II increased to 22 percent by 1940. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that while women represented nearly half of the total U.S. labor force (47 percent), they comprised less than a third (27 percent) of the manufacturing jobs in 2014. That is a meager 8% increase in the manufacturing industry in nearly 100 years. Not stellar advancement and proof that women have never really hit the "growth" stage for the manufacturing sector.
Perceptions of Manufacturing
Research highlighting the shortage of women in manufacturing has focused on several issues that may be holding women back from playing a more prominent role in the industry. The first is the perception that manufacturing is a stagnant industry. However, according to a highly cited report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, in the next decade nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. Moreover, 80 percent of manufacturers report a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly-skilled production positions.
If the jobs are there, why aren’t women taking advantage of them? A 2014 Women in Manufacturing report on "The Future of Female Talent in the Manufacturing Sector" cites some of the most insightful answers to this question. Young women, like most people considering future careers, want interesting and challenging work and a high earning potential. However, the WIM survey found that only 7 percent of respondents listed manufacturing as a field that offers opportunity for young women. Even worse, 59 percent said they could not recall a manufacturing company they would consider a leader in attracting and advancing women. Therefore, it is not surprising that 68 percent of the respondents stated they are not likely to consider manufacturing as a career path.
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. For young women, they see a dying industry with no role models. For women currently working in manufacturing, they site that while the industry offers multiple job roles, the number of executive and management positions available is less than other industries. Across the data, there is agreement that a major factor contributing to women's underrepresentation in manufacturing is the perception of it being a "male-favored culture."
From Stagnation to Adoption—Education Takes the Lead
How then 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. The rise of National Manufacturing Day is a first step in this effort, and I love talking with the students that come tour our company on those days. They are eager to find out more about this "mysterious" world of manufacturing and we always hear comments of surprise at the brightly lit, modernly designed, technologically advanced building and cool looking jobs. This Manufacturing Day event is a great effort, with more than 1600 events reaching 250,000 students in 2015, but more needs to be done if we are to see a significant change. As young women move through their education, manufacturers need to partner with educational institutions to develop curriculum that equips women with the skills and knowledge needed to prepare them for careers in the growing segments of manufacturing. This needs to start at the primary education level and continue through university, or vocational and community college programs.
Manufacturers then 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 enjoy challenging, meaningful work. 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.
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 but 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. Need some ideas? Check out Astra Women’s Business Alliance, Million Women Mentors, FIRST Robotics Competition, Women In Manufacturing, Women's President Organization, and the National Association of Manufacturers.
When we focus on early education, 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. And if we start now, we won't have to wait another 100 years to enjoy the growth and success women can bring to this industry.