Manufacturing Should Ratchet Up Recruitment of Women, Experts Say

By Max Mihelich

Mar. 4, 2013

As some U.S. companies bring their manufacturing jobs back to American shores from overseas, they’re finding it difficult to fill newly created positions as well as some that already were vacant. A recent report conducted by consultancy Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute argues the industry is missing a vital, untapped resource to fill vacant jobs: women.

According to the survey which was released earlier this year, women are drastically underrepresented in the manufacturing industry when compared to the general U.S. working population. While women make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force, the group accounts for only about 25 percent of the manufacturing industry’s workforce.

There are two issues that may explain the lack of women workers in U.S. manufacturing jobs, the report explains: First, the industry is stigmatized as a boys’ club. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents believe the main driver of women’s underrepresentation in manufacturing is the perception of it as a male-favored culture. Andy Preissner, human resources and safety manager at Appleton, Wisconsin-based A to Z Machine Co., says that a career in the manufacturing industry is stereotyped as traditionally for men and agrees that the categorization may have discouraged women from pursuing a manufacturing career, especially at the production level.

“I’ve been at A to Z for about three years now, and since I’ve been here, only one woman has applied for a skilled production job,” Preissner says.

The other problem leading to the shortage of women workers is education and skills requirements demanded by today’s manufacturing industry. Such jobs are still thought of as hard, dirty and even dangerous manual-labor positions, sources say, when in reality most manufacturing jobs are just the opposite. With companies such as A to Z Machine, computers play an integral role in production, and many employees need math and science skills to perform these jobs. Yet many applicants do not have the proper skills.

President Barack Obama touched on this subject in his 2013 State of the Union address. “These initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and housing will help entrepreneurs and small-business owners expand and create new jobs. But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs,” he said.

Allison Grealis, director of the executive networking group Women in Manufacturing and director of member services for the Precision Metalforming Association, agrees with the president’s view on education’s importance to the American economy, especially when it comes to education for girls in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Grealis says manufacturers would benefit getting women interested in STEM skills early on.

“It starts in the elementary schools. We need to get women attracted early so they can say, ‘Wow, I can be just as talented in these areas that were typically male areas of expertise,’ ” she says.

Even if the manufacturing industry becomes a more popular career path for women and they are introduced to STEM subjects at an early age, it could be years before the impact of women in the workforce is felt. In the meantime, manufacturers face the pressing issue of recruitment shortages. According to a survey Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute conducted in 2011, 600,000 manufacturing jobs went unfilled.

“I recently saw that there were 200 to 300 open positions in my area alone,” says Preissner, whose company launched an apprenticeship program in late 2010 to remedy their recruitment shortages. He says the biggest obstacle for the manufacturing industry is the American public’s perception of it. “Parents just don’t want their kids to go in manufacturing. They always want their kids to do better than them, and they don’t think manufacturing will allow them to do that,” he says.

Grealis, however, says education could offer a solution to the issue of public perception. She agrees that exposing elementary school children to STEM subjects would have a positive effect, but “I think that needs to be an equal focus of a national initiative to draw greater attention for the need to get more people, both men and women, in STEM careers. It’s hugely important.”

Max Mihelich is Workforce’s editorial intern. Comment below or email Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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