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An Untapped Source of Talent

The nation’s manufacturers are suffering from talent shortages in key areas. Although women could fill many of those positions, a perception persists that the industry is not welcoming to them.

Monday, April 8, 2013
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Jobs in manufacturing ain't what they used to be.

The term "blue-collar work" may connote big guys in grease-stained overalls laboring away in grimy, noisy workshops. But today, the manufacturing workplace is more likely to resemble that of Optimax, an optics manufacturer near Rochester, N.Y.

The workers at Optimax wear jeans and tie-dye and work with high-end precision machines with names like digital measuring interferometers. They build optics products for Lasik surgery, DNA sequencers and the Mars Rover. The jobs pay well and the company offers tuition reimbursement for college courses taken outside work, according to a recent profile of the company in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

"Today's manufacturing environment is highly complex, and requires people with strong skills in science, engineering and math," says Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers.

Yet, although today's manufacturing jobs often require more brain than brawn, it remains a male-dominated field. Despite comprising nearly half (47 percent) of the U.S. workforce, women represent only a quarter of the durable goods manufacturing workforce, according to a recent report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Manufacturers are already experiencing moderate-to-severe shortages of skilled production workers, engineer technologists, scientists and design engineers. Women would appear to be an obvious source of this needed talent. After all, women earn more than half of the associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees granted in the United States, according to the report.

However, a strong perception still lingers among many talented women today that manufacturing is neither a welcoming nor desirable place for them, says McNelly.

The Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute report included a survey of 600 mostly college-educated women who work in manufacturing -- many in managerial and supervisory positions -- to get their perspectives on the industry.

Overall, the women were pleased with the quality of jobs in manufacturing. More than 75 percent agree that a manufacturing career is interesting and rewarding. Over half of the women surveyed agree if they were starting their careers today, they would choose a job in manufacturing.

However, only one in five survey respondents (20 percent) believe manufacturing does a good job of presenting itself to female candidates, and the sentiment is even stronger among women with bachelor's and master's degrees, with only 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively, agreeing that the industry does a good job in this area. Most participants said gender bias still plays a big role in manufacturing, with 51 percent citing the perception of a male-favored culture as the main driver of women's underrepresentation in the sector.

On a scale of one to five, respondents chose "flexible work practices" as the talent initiative that is most impactful in their organization, followed by customized learning and development programs and identifying and increasing the visibility of key leaders who serve as employee role models.

If manufacturing companies are to attract more women to their ranks, it is incumbent upon them to show they're a desirable place for women to start their careers, says Allison Grealis, director of member services at the Precision Metalforming Association.

"I wasn't surprised by the survey results," says Grealis, whose organization -- which represents North American companies that make precision metal products -- helped design the survey. The results highlight the need for CEOs and HR leaders at manufacturers to create and support internal mentor networks for women, she says.

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"We've had two annual meetings of women in manufacturing, and the participants cited sponsorships -- most of them informal -- that were key to them getting ahead," she says.

She cites Ford Motor Co. as a good example of a manufacturer that has a "very robust" women-in-manufacturing interest group that reaches out to young women in community colleges and high schools to let them know about career opportunities in the industry.

"We're finding there's definitely an appetite among young women for more knowledge about careers in manufacturing," says Grealis.

For its part, the Manufacturing Institute is highlighting women who make significant achievements in manufacturing via its annual STEP Awards. The inaugural awards ceremony was held this February in Washington and honored 122 women from various manufacturing companies.

"At the reception, one of the honorees told me she was profiled in her local newspaper and, the very next day, a woman who'd read the story walked in and applied for a job at her company," says McNelly.

Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada, says manufacturing companies that make an effort to encourage and support the women in their ranks will hold an advantage in recruiting over those that don't.

"In manufacturing and other sectors where women are underrepresented, our research shows that women are looking for role models," she says. "If they don't see themselves reflected in the organization, it often suggests a barrier to getting ahead, and that dissuades them."

In March, Catalyst honored three manufacturing companies -- Alcoa, Unilever and Coca-Cola -- for their efforts to promote women in the workplace.

"Alcoa, in particular, has taken away the ability of leaders to make excuses for not recruiting and promoting women," says Johnston. "They tie executive compensation to diversity and have made huge strides in making sure they recruit as many women as possible at all levels of the organization."

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