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Diversity in Manufacturing: How Women Can Help Shrink the Skills Gap

Diversity in Manufacturing: How Women Can Help Shrink the Skills Gap
The Overlooked Solution to the Skills Gap

The manufacturing industry has been experiencing an extreme makeover over the past decade. Historically, society has equated the manufacturing industry with a dirty, dangerous factory floor occupied by men. Fast forward to present day – the manufacturing industry is advanced and modern requiring a diverse level of skills from both men and women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that around 27.5 percent of women are employed in manufacturing in the United States. It's a little known fact that women started entering the manufacturing industry in the mid-1900s, and specifically in the late 1960s, according to the Saint Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research (FRASER). While the percentage of women in manufacturing has grown, the current number is less than a third of the entire manufacturing workforce. It's clear a significant need currently exists for women to accommodate an evolving manufacturing industry.

AJ Jorgenson, AVP, Strategic Engagement at the Manufacturing Institute

“The manual labor of yesterday is no longer,” points out AJ Jorgenson, who leads the operations for the Manufacturing Institute’s largest initiative called STEP Ahead. “There are 3D printers, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and automated capabilities all being integrated into modern manufacturing practices to create promising careers for men and women.”

One of the top challenges for manufacturers over the past several years has been finding and retaining talent. The retiring baby boomer generation is only adding to this burden. According to a study from research firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, some 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are expected to be needed over the next decade, and 2 million of these jobs are estimated to go unfilled due to the skills gap.

The lack of skilled talent is among the top challenges today’s manufacturers face, says Pamela Kan, who leads the automation solutions and guided motion manufacturing technology company called Bishop-Wisecarver Group.

How Women Can Help Fill the Skills Gap

A new report from the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte and APICS shows that manufacturers are making it a priority to recruit and develop women for the opportunities they can offer. Companies are finding that gender diversity impacts the bottom line. Nearly 50 percent of manufacturers surveyed found that having women on the leadership team impacted financial performance. One perspective even showed that the difference between no females in executive leadership to less than a third representation could impact net profitability as much as 15 percent.

Revenue growth occurs when diverse ideas lead to new and innovative products, which 84 percent of manufacturers believe women deliver. In turn, these products allow an entrance into new markets and the opportunity to attract new business.

Pamela Kan, president of Bishop-Wisecarver Group

“The best innovations have come from diverse teams,” points out Kan. “When you have a more diverse team, that includes men and women, you approach things differently and are better at problem-solving and creating innovative ideas.”

Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, advocates that women are important to manufacturing for many reasons. The strong desire of women to make a difference, however, is quite possibly of the greatest impact on the industry. This purpose drives a passion to develop parts that build cars for people to drive, to create safe and innovative products for their children to enjoy and to produce goods to make men and women’s everyday lives easier.

“If the gender gap in manufacturing would change just 10 percent, the overall skills gap could be reduced by more than half,” explains Jorgenson.

Rebranding the Manufacturing Industry

While women could make a tremendous impact on bridging the skills gap, the question arises as to whether women want these jobs. If the jobs exist, why aren’t women running to them? Unfortunately, this question does not have a simple answer. Remember that dirty and dangerous factory floor perception? The stigma continues, meaning the manufacturing industry has a serious branding problem. Women tend to gravitate away from the industry because it has traditionally been male-oriented, or they simply don’t know what opportunities are available.

The hosts of Manufacturing Talk Radio, an industry-based podcast, believe education is the first step toward changing this perception.

“Germany has a dual educational system where both boys and girls go to school five days a week, two days which are dedicated to vocational studies and the other three focused on liberal arts,” explains Lew Weiss, host of Manufacturing Talk Radio. “These kids come out of school and are exposed to many different opportunities.”

Tim Grady (left) and Lew Weiss (right), co-hosts of Manufacturing Talk Radio

“America is behind the curve in preparing the future workforce,” adds Tim Grady, co-host of Manufacturing Talk Radio. “The unemployment rate of the U.S. compared to countries like Germany is evidence of the differences in education.”

It’s important to connect with people at a young age, show them how modern manufacturing really looks and that viable career options exist. These factors should be introduced in schools but also in media. A disconnect occurs when Girls’ Life magazine focuses on fashion and beauty, while Boys’ Life magazine encourages exploring future career choices. When this messaging changes and is consistent, society may also modify its image of the industry.

Many manufacturers and educators are working together to create and raise awareness for programs that provide more exposure to the true image behind modern manufacturing. Movements are rising up throughout the industry showing that women can be part of the solution. A true opportunity exists for women to not only let their voices be heard in the manufacturing industry, but to also significantly impact women in the workforce.