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Women Represent Untapped Resource for Manufacturing Industry

February 22, 2013
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Women in Manufacturing

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 empty jobs: women.

According to the survey which was released earlier this year, women are drastically underrepresented in the manufacturing industry workforce when compared to the general U.S. working population. While women make up nearly half of the American labor force, the group only accounts for 24.8 percent of the manufacturing industry's workforce.

There are two issues that may explain the lack of women workers in American manufacturing jobs, says the report.

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, SPHR 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 one, 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 the manufacturing industry of the 21st century. Such jobs are still thought of as hard, dirty and even dangerous manual labor positions by the American public when in reality most manufacturing jobs are just the opposite. With companies such as A to Z Machine, computers play an integral role in the production level of manufacturing industry today, and many employees need math and science skills to perform their 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," the president 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 the earlier girls are exposed to STEM subjects.

"It starts in the elementary schools. We need to get women attracted early and so they can say, 'Wow, I can be just as talented in these areas that were typically male areas of expertise,'" she said.

Even if the manufacturing industry becomes more attractive to women and girls 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 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," said Preissner, whose company launched an apprenticeship program in late 2010 to remedy their recruitment shortages. Preissner believes 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 said.

Grealis, however, believes 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 on the general perception of the manufacturing industry.

"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. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com

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