Women play an important role in the future of manufacturing

By Erin Eagan

Despite some perceptions that manufacturing is a man’s career (at least traditionally), a large number of women during World War II worked in manufacturing. These women were the wives, sisters and daughters of men who enlisted in the armed forces, leaving vacant positions behind. It was during that time when the iconic Rosie the Riveter image was born, inspiring a social movement to increase the number of women doing industrial work. Women proved themselves as more than capable and were letting the men know, “We Can Do It.”

When the war ended and the men returned to the factories and shipyards, the majority of women left the industry and wouldn’t return in larger numbers until decades later. But since that time, growth has been slow. Even in 2017, women still represent less than 30 percent of the manufacturing workforce.   

In recent efforts to combat a skilled worker shortage, the industry has been actively trying to attract more women, and it appears the gender imbalance is improving. A recent Deloitte survey on gender gap in manufacturing roles found that 42 percent of women in 2017 (compared to 24 percent in 2015) who work in manufacturing are now ready to encourage their daughter or female family member to pursue a career in their industry. In addition, 58 percent of those surveyed have observed positive changes in the industry’s attitude toward female employees.

An upsurge in recruiting efforts
In recent years, employers and educators have taken a more proactive approach to convincing women, and even young girls, to consider manufacturing as a career choice. In October, nationally designated as “Manufacturing Month,” Wisconsin’s technical colleges host several events to promote careers in the industry.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) hosted a few events created specifically for girls and young women. “Girls in Trades” introduced 200 girls in grades 6-8 to masonry, biomedical electronics, robotics, CNC machining and prototyping careers. Also, an event NWTC co-hosted at Marinette Middle School for 7th and 8th grade girls and their parents called “This Girl Can” gave students a chance to tour the Samuel Pressure Vessel Group factory and hear from women in manufacturing careers.

Lisa Johnson, a coordinator of summer school and extended learning with the Green Bay Area School district, knows reaching out to girls at that age is important. “It's a time when they are trying to explore who they are and to think outside the box of something they didn't think they could do,” says Johnson.  She encourages them to “give it a try because you never know until you try something.” 

Expanding early educational opportunities
Technology has transformed the manufacturing industry, creating jobs that are highly skilled and highly technical. To help keep pace with these changes, there has been a surge in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in schools — at all levels.

“I believe in STEM education at an early age,” says Mary Lieder-Harper, Mechanical Design instructor at Western Technical College. “I also like to see activities like Destination Imagination, science fairs and robotic competitions developed and promoted to girls. Teachers, guidance counselors and, of course, parents have a huge impact instilling confidence in them to pursue STEM and other non-traditional roles.” 

Since STEM-related occupations now make up more than one in 10 jobs, Wisconsin’s Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch has been active in trying to recruit women into these careers. In a recent video produced by WMC, Kleefisch states, “I would like to encourage women young and old, those who have influence over the next generation of Wisconsin mothers, daughters, sisters and wives, to make sure that the young women in your lives continue to pursue science, technology, engineering and math.” She continues, “The careers in manufacturing that those courses lead to are family-sustaining wage careers and are very satisfying.”

In addition to STEM education, high schools have also amped up their efforts in Career and Technical Education (CTE), giving students a head start on preparing for college and careers. CTE course offerings are supported by partnerships with local businesses and technical colleges where students are allowed to explore career options like manufacturing, receive industry certification and earn post-secondary credits while progressing toward high school graduation. CTE students in Wisconsin — with a graduation rate of 96 percent — prove that students, when engaged and actively participating in their learning, can succeed at very high rates. This graduation rate, of which almost 46 percent are female, bodes well for an industry in need of more of skilled workers.

Lieder-Harper has high hopes for the continued growth of women in manufacturing. “It is important for all of us in the manufacturing industry to see women promoted to high level management positions,” she says. “Women should receive the same amount of prestige and compensation as their male counterparts.”

We may not be there yet, but with the continued efforts of educators and employers, the closing of the gender gap may not be far off.