If you were to visit a typical high school classroom anywhere in the country, and ask the students how many of them will be pursuing a career in manufacturing, you would be disappointed at how few students would raise their hands. Even when you tell them about the many high-paying jobs that are available in the manufacturing industry, it is just not a career that they are considering. And of those few high school students who might show an interest, fewer yet would be young women.
While manufacturing has historically been a male-dominated field, it holds many great career opportunities for young women today. The Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, released a study last year titled "Untapped Resource." It addresses how manufacturers can recruit, retain and advance talented women as a measure to help fill the skills gap facing this industry.
The U.S. is in the middle of a manufacturing resurgence. In the last few years, President Obama has been a proponent of high-tech manufacturing using federal dollars to spur growth, strengthen technical colleges, and recruit more people to pursue jobs in this industry. But despite all these efforts, women continue to be underrepresented in this key sector of the workforce. According to the study, women make up about half of the total U.S. labor force, but only a quarter of the durable goods workforce -- that includes the automotive, energy, aerospace, industrial, technology, retail and transportation industries.
In a call to get more women into applied technology positions, the female workforce already employed in manufacturing jobs is working to attract more women to their ranks. There are already a number of organizations and professional groups focused on women in these industries like Women in Manufacturing, Association of Women in Metal Industries, and Automotive Women's Alliance Foundation, just to name a few.
Last October, the Daily Worth, a digital media company for professional women, published the article "Why We Switched to Manufacturing Careers" featuring seven women who are advancing and prospering in fields typically dominated by men. In the article Siobhan Ryan, sales account manager for Art Technologies in Hamilton, Ohio, talks about how it was a little intimidating the first time she walked onto the plant floor, but since has come to love the camaraderie and the sense of group achievement she and her coworkers find at their jobs.
"I think manufacturing is the new frontier for young women and a tremendous growth career as the United States roars back in the global marketplace. I'm now encouraging my 17-year-old-daughter to study industrial engineering or supply chain management in college," Ryan said in the article.
Several of the women featured in the story said they liked the fact that their job gave them new and interesting challenges, sometimes on a daily basis. And these women aren't alone. According to the Manufacturing Institute study, which surveyed 600 women with manufacturing jobs, 75 percent reported their manufacturing career is interesting and rewarding. When asked about the most attractive aspect of a career in manufacturing, the number one answer was compensation at 37 percent followed closely by opportunities for challenging assignments at 34 percent.
So what's the biggest obstacle to getting more women in these hands-on industries? It's all about perception. Allison Grealis, director of Women in Manufacturing said in the Daily Worth article that "today's manufacturing isn't dark, dirty or dangerous," but is "much more about brains than brawn." But for some reason, this new truth isn't getting out there. In fact, 80 percent of women in manufacturing believe the industry doesn't do a good job of promoting itself to potential female employees.
Companies and industries have to start actively recruiting women if there's any chance of filling the nation's skills gap. And they have to start early. According to the study, 60 percent of those surveyed said technical skills were the most important attribute when it comes to a person's success in the manufacturing industry. Companies and industries have to become actively involved at the high school and college level, pushing STEM courses and raising the awareness and garnering interest of young women in pursuing these technical jobs.
Our nation needs a strong manufacturing base and our communities need the jobs that this industry can deliver. The resurgence is happening right now in the U.S. manufacturing sector and we would all be wise to sit up and take notice. As this massive industry rebuilds its image with a new generation, retools its plants with new technology, and recruits a whole new workforce of highly-skilled professionals; there will be many opportunities for success--for young men and women alike. We need more young people raising their hand to the opportunities in the manufacturing sector and many more young women who are willing to make this rewarding career choice their own.