The growing demand for a skilled manufacturing workforce becomes more apparent as global competition increases and products and processes become more complex. Solving manufacturing problems in this new era of globalization and digitization requires diversity of thought, skill and background, and women are valuable in these environments. However, according to the latest U.S. Census, women make up just under half of the working population in the United States, but account for only 29% of the manufacturing workforce.
The lack of female representation in manufacturing can be attributed to a variety of factors including significant gender pay gaps, negative perceptions of manufacturing jobs, and outdated social and cultural workplace norms. To begin to correct these issues requires raising awareness of manufacturing careers and creating female communities of practice supported by government, industry and academic programs in order to attract and retain new talent in manufacturing.
My first job when I graduated from college was in aerospace manufacturing – and my first day on the job was my first time on a manufacturing shop floor. I was overwhelmed and in awe at the same time. I had never considered manufacturing as a career because it was something I was never exposed to growing up in a small rural town. Herein lies an opportunity to create early exposure to manufacturing careers that is necessary for continued economic prosperity.
There are multiple short- and long-term initiatives geared towards developing a pipeline of workforce talent. For example, National Manufacturing Day is a designated day in October, produced by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manufacturing Institute, which encourages manufacturers to open their doors for plant tours and demonstrations to local schools and the public. This annual one-day event can create a lasting impact on students and parents, but it relies on manufacturers placing an emphasis on outreach and recognizing the importance of experiential education.
States also need to champion apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning programs during high school to raise awareness of manufacturing careers and alternatives to pursing a traditional four-year college degree. One way to engage students from an early age is by introducing them to manufacturing principles like 3D product modeling, material selection and scalability for production through the product development lifecycle and entrepreneurship.
In 2018, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, along with partners including the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia, created the Georgia InVenture Prize program, a statewide expansion of the Georgia Tech K-12 InVenture Prize program. The competition develops 21st-century skills like problem solving and critical thinking that manufacturers require. These types of innovative workforce development programs necessitate the active participation of manufacturers, local government and education systems to be sustainable and result in real change for the future of workers in manufacturing, as I outline in my paper, “Evaluating Manufacturing Workforce Development Initiatives in Georgia.”
To support existing women in manufacturing requires creating places for frank conversations and building communities of practice to share experiences. I gained valuable knowledge from my time spent working in the manufacturing industry, but I craved mentorship and tangible examples of female role models in my everyday working life. When I looked around, I didn’t see women leaders that I wanted to emulate. Two of my favorites are the Georgia Chapter of Women in Manufacturing and the annual Next Generation Manufacturing Women’s Leadership event. Women-focused organizations and events have grown at a tremendous rate.
More broadly, manufacturing companies need to create more welcoming workplace cultures and reevaluate their incentive models. One of the most uncomfortable places for me in manufacturing settings is actually the bathrooms. It may sound silly, but it is true. I judge how a company values their workforce based on something as simple as a restroom. Investing in proper facilities and upkeep not only conveys a message that the workforce is integral to the company’s success, but also that female employees are seen as equal members of the team.
Technology also presents an opportunity to re-engage the workforce and attract new talent and shift traditional workplace cultures to be more innovative and accepting. Advances in computing have made augmented reality and virtual reality, as well as other devices, more accessible and relevant for manufacturing companies. These tools are largely unexplored in terms of the potential long-term rewards for manufacturers, and are a great opportunity to attract a younger workforce and maintain a position as an industry leader. Lengthier incentives that need to be re-examined for manufacturing include flexible hours and daycare or afterschool care options. These suggestions are not only for women but for the benefit of all employees and families.
Women-focused organizations are gaining momentum because of the growing recognition of the value and skills that women contribute to the manufacturing workplace. These efforts need to continue to expand to include female factory floor workers with support from industry and local communities.
Alyssa Rumsey is the senior industry engagement manager at the Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, part of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. She is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology, focusing on understanding the impact of new digital technologies on people and organizations.