September 21, 2015

Manufacturing Matters: Women in Manufacturing

by Marni Hockenberg

What is the role of women in today’s manufacturing companies? How can we attract more females to manufacturing, and what is preventing them from reaching senior leadership positions? The second annual Women in Manufacturing Summit in Milwaukee, Wis., was the place to be in October to address these and other important issues that affect the success and future of the manufacturing industry.

I was invited to speak on the hot topic of “Talent Acquisition and Retention in Manufacturing” to over 200 national manufacturing leaders and business owners. My presentation was based on my front-line experience as an executive recruiter for the manufacturing industry. To successfully compete in today’s talent war, consider these points:

  • Companies are vying for scarce top talent and candidates are in the driver’s seat again. Top candidates need to know about your company culture and career growth potential before they apply.
  • Invest in an employment branding campaign. This is critical for smaller manufacturing companies who don’t have the advantage of name recognition and compete with larger companies for talent.
  • Implement a data-driven performance-based hiring process to hire the right person and avoid making a costly hiring mistake. Utilize assessments as a tool to evaluate candidates, not the reason to reject them.
  • Onboard new hires immediately upon offer acceptance and implement customized retention strategies to retain your high performers.

Other presentations at the Summit addressed the issue of the role of women in manufacturing today. Doesn’t it make sense to attract more women to manufacturing to help solve the skills shortages that challenge U.S. manufacturing? Two-thirds of American manufacturing companies are in need of hiring more skilled workers and it’s expected that the shortage will grow worse in the next 3 to 5 years. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be a shortage of 873,000 skilled workers.

According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center, men gained 230,000 jobs in manufacturing between 2010 and 2011 but women lost 25,000 jobs. Today, only 30 percent of the estimated 14 million Americans who work in manufacturing are female. And only about 15 percent of students in manufacturing degree programs are women.

Why are those numbers so low? One explanation could be the lack of quality science and math programs. Another could be the stereotype that a career in engineering and manufacturing are not for women. Parents of young girls don’t promote manufacturing as a viable career option, despite the fact that girls now earn higher grades in math and science than do boys. Manufacturing conjures up images of dirty and noisy work, while the truth is that many production floors consist of highly-automated equipment that require highly-skilled workers.

Imagine women rising to the ranks within our manufacturing operations to take on leadership roles. By utilizing unique strengths such as collaboration and listening skills, women at the top could positively impact the way companies work together throughout the supply chains and strengthen corporate culture.

“When companies make a concerted effort to include more diversity at the board and executive level, we’ll see the culture start to shift”, said Sherri McDaniel, president of ATEK Products in Minneapolis, Minn. She advises women to come to the table prepared with data and facts in order to earn credibility with the male leadership team. Replacing phrases such as “I feel” or “I think” with non-emotional ones, such as “the data shows” or “it’s been my observation” may be better received by male counterparts.

Many women who I met at the Summit made it on their own with the help of peers and mentors that offered advice and support along the way. There was a consensus that the culture and the image of manufacturing need to change in order to attract and then retain women in manufacturing companies. If not, then companies are limiting themselves to only half of the available talent pool which can reduce their capacity to compete in this global economy.

What can your manufacturing company do to tap into the capabilities of the other half of the population?

  • Develop or join a mentorship program and provide leadership training for female employees.
  • Forge a relationship with your local Technical or Community College to mentor and hire recent female grads. Internship programs are a win-win program.
  • Talk to school-age girls about careers in manufacturing. Point out that they do not need a 4-year degree with costly student debt to secure a career in a high-tech, clean and safe manufacturing company with excellent compensation and career advancement.
  • Change the culture from ‘good-old-boy’ to one of inclusion for female employees.
  • Provide a more flexible workplace.

Marni Hockenberg is Principal of Hockenberg Search in Minneapolis. She can be reached at