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Can Women Fill the Skills Gap in Manufacturing?

I have a confession to make.  I love the show “Fast and Loud” on the Discovery Channel which features the Gas Monkey garage in Dallas, Texas.  If you have never seen it, the show stars the garage’s owner, Richard Rawlings, and head mechanic, Aaron Kaufman, as they look for fixer-upper cars to (you guessed it) fix-up and sell.

It was introduced to me through a show tie-in when the Gas Monkey team was challenged to a build-off that included Jesse James and the father/son dynamic behind Orange County Choppers.  The reason I call out these names is to highlight the fact that the casts on these shows are dominated by men.  Women appear to only be supporting members of the families and not involved in the builds. 

That changed recently on an episode of “Fast and Loud” when a young woman that modeled for the garage told Richard that she was an experienced welder and was given a chance to show her skills on camera.  At the same time a fact popped up on the screen that only 2.5% of all working women in the U.S. are in manufacturing jobs.  This really surprised me.  Working for NIST MEP, I have had the opportunity to tour a number of manufacturing facilities and I often see women working in this industry. In addition, everyone that has seen “A League of Their Own” knows how during World War II, women went to work in manufacturing jobs when the men were drafted into war.  And don’t forget Laverne and Shirley who worked as bottle cappers at Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee! I decided I needed to do a little research about women in manufacturing careers.

Turns out women are not that heavily involved in manufacturing.  As the nation continues its economic recovery, women are not sharing in the gains being made in the manufacturing sector jobs.  Women’s share of factory jobs rose steadily in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, peaking at just under a third — 32.2% — in the early 1990’s. Since then, their share has dropped just as steadily, falling in 20 of the past 21 years. Women held 27.3% of manufacturing jobs in 2012, the lowest level since 1971 (Casselman, 2013).  This explains why all of my references are so dated!

Another fact is that manufacturers are having a hard time finding skilled workers, and to bring jobs back from overseas and compete globally we need skilled workers.  Manufacturing is seeing some of the biggest advancements in years and while the jobs previously held predominantly by women are changing due to automation, there lies the opportunity for new ones.  Getting women involved in manufacturing can help fill gaps in the workforce seen all across the country and bring new skill sets to companies.  Infusing changes into the workforce can help the workforce shortage and even spark new ideas.

One last confession before I leave you.  Years ago I worked for a manufacturer that made small motors and my job was to hook 4 wires into the casing for a ceiling fan motor.  That was it.  You would think this would be the easiest job but I looked like Lucille Ball when she was working the conveyor belt in the candy factory.  I understand how much manufacturing has changed in just 20 years but only because I’ve had a front row seat.  When women think of future manufacturing careers they should see computers and innovation.  Changing the stereotypes of manufacturing has already begun and I would love to see the role of women in manufacturing be one of those that is also changed forever!

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I think you're correct in your observations and conclusions, but what you haven't discussed (noticed?) is that the management hierarchy, from the shop floor to corporate executives, is a man's world, only occasionally interrupted by powerful and capable women. About the only time there's a defined role for women in an enterprise is when the business is pursuing a government procurement that mandates small business set-asides for women, disabled vets, historically underutilized business zones (HUBzones), and the like. Finally there's the absurd, but still deeply felt, issue by the predominantly male workforce, that a shop floor is not a place for a woman. This is throwback sexism, of course, but that it still persists is reinforced time after time by lawsuits and/or class actions to fight harassment , hostility, and deliberate indifference to a woman's place in the manufacturing world. Men's attitudes and underlying workplace behaviors need to change as much as women's in finding the right economic and social balance, so that the workplace can become less of a Culture War combat zone, and instead become a major economic driver in this nation's recovery.
I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for the food for thought.... it led me to wonder- Do you think that women have an advantage over men when it comes to innovative thinking and/or computer programming? Do you happen to know of any programs specifically aimed towards attracting women to manufacturing jobs? Thanks.
Thanks for the response, Heidi. I don't know that women have a great advantage over men in innovative thinking and/or computer programming; however, I do believe that we have a lot to contribute. Anytime you infuse a process with new ideas and a fresh set of eyes, you are going to see things differently which can lead to improved processes or products. I don't know of any programs specifically for guiding women to manufacturing but hope to see it promoted as career choices as we move into the future of manufacturing.
Great points, Allen. By the numbers alone it is obviously a male dominated career field. I was approaching this piece from a standpoint of women changing the overall thinking toward manufacturing careers but do recognize the barriers within the industry. I alluded to this when I mentioned that the previously held positions (ie. stock rooms, quality control) have become automated which could appear to be pushing women out of the industry. I'm not sure it is so different in manufacturing than it is in other industries but it won't begin to change until the numbers of women in the industry increase.
Ms. Ayala... First an apology for thinking you'd overlooked the subject. But to expand on your idea that there won't be any significant change until women enter that labor pool... There, I think, lies an opportunity for the government to foster new approaches to the manufacturing and supply chain processes. If we wait on antiquated ideas to go the way of antiquated machines, we'll lose out on that many more jobs. As a thought, consider that Verizon has women at the top of their food chain, equally represented throughout their labor and management hierarchies, down to and including their field technicians and pole climbers. If this dynamic of fair representation (I won't say it's perfect) works in the telecomm and IT installation world, there's no good reason it isn't already a given in American manufacturing. Thanks for a stimulating article... ADB
The Wall Street Journal reported in its economic blog of March 26, 2013, that U.S. factories have added more than half a million workers in the past three years, but that women haven’t seen commensurate gains. Female employment in the manufacturing sector fell by 13,000 over the past three years. Many of the expanding manufacturing sectors, such as fabricated metal products and machinery, have a relatively small share of women employees with most jobs in these sectors going to men, says the report. Now, I’m a big believer in job parity and equal opportunity, but it seems to me that most of the “lost” jobs would have been lost whether they were held by women or men. So, it’s not as if women were pushed out of jobs because of wage issues or prejudice. I’m pretty comfortable saying that I believe most of those women were simply caught up in the transition from old manufacturing to new manufacturing, and didn’t receive skills upgrades or training when all that was happening. And I will go out on a limb and say that maybe that was a good thing. Today, manufacturing is so very different than it has been that it’s probably better to start afresh for the many women who want to make “things” as well as an impact. The “maker movement,” in which manufacturing is distributed across an ecosystem of design, supply, production and distribution, is an exciting evolution in the manufacturing world and doesn’t require a large factory to provide economies of scale. It’s a way to make things using creative thinking and savvy execution, rather than factory labor and mountains of financing. Call me crazy, but I think women are going to excel at this new model of manufacturing. Without being too confining in my characterizations, women often seem very comfortable with ambiguity, non-linearity, visualization, analysis, problem-solving, and collaboration. I know not all women are like that, but those that are can find a good home in next generation manufacturing.
Ms. Wagner... I've been particularly impressed at the evolution of labor market/jobs financing using the distributed architecture you describe. But I suggest that most of these enterprises experience a downward pull as social and economic justice issues tend to infiltrate them. Please note that I'm not "blaming the victim." I believe that alternative economic models will provide greater empowerment for disenfranchised workers. However, I think it more likely that these activities, particularly in poor nations and/or poor regions of the US, will be manipulated or suppressed if their efforts threaten larger MNCs or regionally based enterprises (i.e., civic and labor organizations vs mining or oil development interests such as Twin Metals Minnesota, Rio Tinto, Exxon, or HOLT Abogados; the Grange and Farmer's co-ops vs Pillsbury or General Mills; small pharmacy drug R&D development vs. Big Pharma). Uneven playing fields are the norm and are not likely to change anytime soon. At one time "little guy" entrepreneurs and co-ops could make forecasts that were not immediately affected by an incremental up-tick in traded futures. That's no longer the case, and hasn't been for several decades. The implications for small enterprises remain profoundly negative, unless they can afford and have access to reliable utilities, major computing capacity, impeccable databases, and a battery of high-powered lawyers. There is a somewhat different notion of success in the high tech industries -- that is, grow your business to such an extent that it catches the attention of major industry players, and then sell it to them! That pays the executives and stockholders handsomely, but for the rank and file, not so much. What I'm arguing here is an extrapolation of the women in manufacturing dilemma: Alternative social and economic approaches to living in a global economy begin with stacked cards and institutionalized unfairness. The overarching corporate model of the "disinterested pursuit of profit" marginalizes those seeking to make change. There are remedies to such unfairness, but most "Band Aid" solutions depend on "the best government money can buy." A global re-energizing of distributed economic and social justice architectures must keep notions of profitability and sound practices foremost, lest their efforts degenerate into just another maquilladorean sweatshop.
This is a great discussion that many more people should be having. We have a female technician here at KC Robotics and she is just as capable as her male counterpart at doing the job. What I feel stops girls from pursuing a manufacturing career is the general belief that manufacturing is like it was years ago, dirty and dangerous. However, anyone in manufacturing knows that more often than not, it's the opposite. And then there are the strong influencers who push the 4-year degree, the office jobs, etc. We are looking into working with local groups of children to bring them into our facility and see what manufacturing has become, we integrate robots into assembly lines but we have cells that demonstrate the possibilities.
Societies frequently change because their economies change. Old industries fall away, replaced by new technologies and new demands for goods and services. Sometimes, though, the new technologies and new demands end up hollowing out places that haven’t been able to adapt fast enough. Many manufacturing regions – especially in America’s Midwest – have wrestled with changes in manufacturing, both from a technological standpoint, but also from a “skills” perspective. As advanced manufacturing has diminished the footprint of manufacturing plants, it has expanded its “cloud cover” (i.e. digital infrastructure). And many people have found themselves relegated to “has-been” status. But the Millennials want a fast-paced life, full of trail blazers and innovators, and to be around people who really want progress and change. The new environments they create - of social entrepreneurship - will stimulate entirely new opportunities for both men and women of their generation. I believe that society will adapt to and encourage these young people and that they will help remake manufacturing whether on a small scale or globally. The number of American women graduating from college have surpassed the number of men, so they'll get their shot at the brass ring. We just have to encourage them to seek that ring in manufacturing, whether large-scale or small.
Wow! I didn't realize only 2.5% of all working women in the U.S. are in manufacturing jobs. I thought it would be more like 15-20%. I think women can fill the skills gap in manufacturing. The stereotypes of manufacturing jobs just needs to change. Women need to see the technology, innovation, and numerous career options in manufacturing these days. It's not your mom and pop shops anymore.
Women can absolutely fill these manufacturing jobs, and we really need more women in manufacturing. Women think differently than men. They have a different mind set, and we need that diversity in manufacturing.

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