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By LauraLee Rose, Missouri Enterprise Project Manager (and a woman in manufacturing)

Ask any little girl what she wants to do when she grows up, and odds are that she will not say, “I want to work in manufacturing!”. (Granted, that answer may also be far down the list for little boys, somewhere behind firefighter or professional athlete.)

U.S. manufacturers are facing a real threat today, with as many as 2 million manufacturing jobs expected to be open within the next decade as the baby boomers retire. And finding folks to fill those jobs is viewed as the number one challenge in many factories, especially in areas where unemployment is already low. Manufacturing executives responding to a recent skills gap study report six out of ten positions are currently unfilled due to the skills gap.  That’s 6 out of 10!

The answer to the current and coming skills shortage could be a critical pool of untapped talent: women. Women comprise about 47 percent of the US labor force as of 2016, but only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce. Women are underrepresented in almost every manufacturing sector. And the proportion of women in leadership roles in those factories also lags behind other industries in the U.S.

The Manufacturing Institute, APICS, and Deloitte conducted a study of more than 600 women in manufacturing, including interviews with manufacturers themselves, to learn more about how to attract, recruit and retain women as valuable employees in the manufacturing sector, and what can be done to close the gender gap. (https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/manufacturing/articles/women-in-manufacturing-industrial-products-and-services.html)

According to this study, one of the many benefits of having women on your manufacturing workforce is increased profitability. -- How’s that for a great reason to hire more women to fill your manufacturing jobs?  According to survey respondents, having women on the leadership team can help manufacturers deliver more diverse perspectives in decision making, bringing more innovative and creative approaches and solutions, a better-balanced organization management, and improved financial performance.

Manufacturers know, and studies show, that skilled manufacturing jobs offer great salaries and earning potential, plenty enough to support a good lifestyle and comfortably raise a family.  So why aren’t women flocking to these good paying jobs?

Many I’ve talked to believe that manufacturing’s outdated image as dirty, hot and male-oriented keeps many females from even considering this career path.  And yes, I’ve been in some hot, dirty factories, and may have seen a few girlie calendars in my day, but today’s factories would surprise most folks.  Modern factories are evolving to be clean, high-tech environments where automation plays a key role, and it takes skilled people to run them.

Today there are too few males, and only a few females, who recognize the demand for skilled labor in manufacturing, then choose to spend 2 years at a technical school, and enter the workforce earning sometimes twice as much as their contemporaries who spent four years at a university and are still living in their parents’ basement.

But of course, that’s not to say there isn’t a critical need for those 4-year college graduates in manufacturing today. The demand for them is huge, too, as supervisors, engineers, and in other support and managerial functions.  Whether you’re the book smart college type or excel at the skills a technical school can bring, the manufacturing sector is full of great career opportunities.

Many enter the manufacturing workforce earning better than some of their peers, and as with almost any industry, hard-working individuals who prove their skills can work their way up through the ranks, taking more and more responsibility, and earning commensurably more.

As I said before, women are an untapped resource to fill these important manufacturing roles, whether it be in skilled positions, management or executive roles.  So how can we get more women interested in manufacturing?

For the long haul, I believe it starts in high school or earlier.  But that’s a challenge because we know that as funding decreases for schools, they often lose their industrial arts and specialty classes. Regional tech schools help fill that gap, but they need to tap the untapped resource pool and find a way to interest more women in manufacturing careers.

The manufacturing community simply must find a way to change the perceived image of manufacturing, presenting a more accurate and appealing message to young men…and women!  Technical schools and colleges need to step up their efforts to attract and recruit men, and especially women, to their industrial programs. Case in point - Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, a leading source for manufacturing talent, reports on their website that their student population is 77% male.

They’d made a big stride towards promoting women in technical industry with the hiring of their first ever female chancellor…but alas, she left the school earlier this year.

To attract more women to the great career opportunities in manufacturing, it’s important for manufacturers to present a message and image that appeals to women.  In the study mentioned above, women said the three things most important to them in a career choice are:  Opportunities for challenging and interesting assignments; attractive pay, and a work-life balance.

I talked to one female plant manager in Missouri who started her career as a manufacturing engineer, distinguished herself through hard work and expertise, and was ultimately promoted to the manager of over the all-male engineering department.  She looks at her career, not in terms of limitation, but challenges she overcame. She admits she was treated differently, and was asked early in her career about her plans to start a family, as employers worried about her taking maternity leave.  Her talent helped her overcome the challenges.  Doesn’t it make sense to create a more level playing field where the best talent has every opportunity to climb the ladder, whether they be male or female?  It’s even more important today, and in the coming decade, because manufacturing will need plenty of women in their workforce to fill all the jobs.

Unfortunately, the current environment in manufacturing makes it tough to retain female employees.  When asked what caused them to consider leaving manufacturing jobs, the women respondents in the survey listed poor working relationships, lack of promotion opportunities and low income/pay as their top three reasons.

Manufacturers must look at this untapped resource and actively work to hire and retain females. They could be the key to filling jobs that the manufacturing industry so desperately needs.