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Four Steps to Increasing Women in Manufacturing

The number of women currently holding manufacturing jobs in the United States is at its lowest point in more than 40 years, according a Joint Economic Committee report. The report shines a light on the reality that we are not making progress when it comes to increasing the number of women represented in the manufacturing sector.

Today women comprise 27 percent of the manufacturing sector, down from the 32 percent peak in 1990.  This is a conundrum given the startling statistics around the types of jobs in manufacturing. By some estimates there are more than 600,000 manufacturing-related job openings that require advanced skills. And that is where the gender divide really happens. Within the manufacturing sector, women make up over 62 percent of the office and administrative workers and 35 percent of the sales employees. But the largest numbers of potential jobs are in areas of production, and here women only hold about 28 percent of the jobs.

What are the myths surrounding women’s lack of participation in the manufacturing sector?

  1. The perception that manufacturing is a dying sector. Not true. While some areas of manufacturing have moved off shore, many are returning. The rise of advanced manufacturing has infused new energy in the manufacturing sector, and headlines in the press are declaring a manufacturing renaissance happening in the U.S. Bottom line: Manufacturing still accounts for 1/8 of our economy.
  2. Manufacturing is a dirty job that requires a high degree of physical labor. As I have written before, this is mostly an image conjured from the past. I think CBS’s recent focus on Tesla Motors and SpaceX highlights this fact brilliantly. Manufacturing is clean, modern, and brimming with technology and innovation. Manufacturing today is now about brains versus brawn. But only 56 percent of Americans believe that manufacturing jobs are clean and safe. Bottom line: The sector demand is for specialized technical skills.
  3. Parental perception has dried up the pipeline. Only 35 percent of Americans would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career. This bias holds true even for women within manufacturing, with a recent survey citing only 55 percent encouraging their daughters to follow their footsteps while encouraging 70 percent of their sons to do so.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks before unveiling the new GMC Canyon midsize pickup truck at Russell Industrial Center in advance of the
North American International Auto Show on January 12, 2014 in Detroit. Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

How can this trend be reversed? We need an engagement level that doesn’t just get us parity to 1990 numbers but actually gets us to parity within the overall workforce. As the song goes “it’s a man’s world” and most women state the number one deterrent is the perception that manufacturing is a “male-favored culture.”

The reports list four solutions:

  1. Increase STEM education participation and proficiency for girls
  2. Provide the technical skills training needed through vocational and community college programs
  3. Increase women in leadership roles
  4. Develop mentoring programs

STEM Education. This is a subject I am extremely passionate about. Serving on the California Workforce Investment Board, I see the impact that a lack of STEM education is creating across our entire workforce. But the disparity for girls is even greater and the trend lasts all the way through high school and into college. Although the press has touted lately that women outnumber men in our colleges and universities, the statistic is misleading. Women are not getting their degrees in STEM-focused areas—less than 50 percent for math and physical sciences and less than 20 percent for engineering and computer sciences. Women cannot achieve equality until they achieve equality in education.

Vocational and Community College Programs. As a nation, we have to change our message and our biases toward four-year education. We need to look at countries such as Germany that value and promote technical training. As long as we perceive technical education as inferior education, we will continue to put our economy in peril. Manufacturers have a role in helping to form and support these programs. We also have a critical need to accept standardized credentials and certification. The portability of skills from region to region and state to state is imperative in creating a vibrant and relevant workforce.

Women in Leadership Roles. In researching this piece, I could not find one article that actually showed a picture of woman in a manufacturing leadership role. Every article, no matter how progressive the publication, showed a photo of a female production level worker. We need to give girls aspirations—something they can dream about. Across manufacturing firms, women only hold 17 percent of the board seats, 12 percent of the executive officer roles and account for only 6 percent of the CEOs, despite being 30 percent of the sector’s labor force.

My company is a longtime sponsor of FIRST Robotics. At one of the first national finals I attended, I had a conversation that changed my life. Standing at my company’s table, a team of girls came up and started asking about how to use our product. One girl looked at me after I gave them a product overview and asked me what I do for the company. My response: “I own it.” Her mouth literally dropped and her eyes got really big. Her response was, “You mean women can own manufacturing companies?” I was literally speechless. I responded, “Yes, women can own manufacturing companies and engineering firms and any kind of business they want.” I realized then we still have a long way to go in getting the message out to young girls. And women who hold leadership roles in manufacturing have a responsibility to make sure that message gets out. We have to make ourselves more visible and accessible to the next generation.

Mentoring Programs. Employers have to make it a priority to support informal and formal programs. Role models from across all levels of manufacturing jobs have to get visible and vocal with the potential pipeline of employees and manufacturing entrepreneurs.

The numbers speak for themselves. Manufacturing jobs pay well, on average 17 percent higher than other industries. Manufacturing jobs are also more likely to include medical and retirement benefits than service-sector jobs. We should want this opportunity to be open to all the young women of our country.

In the end, it is good for business as well. A report by the Manufacturing Institute published in 2009 with Deloitte found the most profitable companies consistently have the most diverse workforces with a focus on talent and people management practices. And a recent study from Italy found that when women take over the family business profitability increases. If we want a vibrant economy, then we must have a relevant workforce that includes both men and women in equal parts.

Pamela Kan is president of Bishop-Wisecarver Group, a family of manufacturing companies.

Four Steps to Increasing Women in Manufacturing was originally published on Ideas Lab

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