Manufacturing's Workforce Shortage Solution? Recruit Women

Why manufacturing needs a 'welcome' sign for women.

Women in manufacturing are really nothing new. Seventy years ago during World War II, “Rosie the Riveter” became a symbol of national pride and determination, a cultural icon who embodied a fierce new brand of feminism, professionalism and grit. Rosie was a stand-in for the thousands of women who took to the factory floor to produce munitions and military supplies, while their husbands and sons, fathers and brothers fought across Europe and the Pacific.  That’s why the question for America’s great manufacturing companies today is: Where’s Rosie when we need her?

Manufacturing has always played a vital role in our nation’s history. It’s been the backbone of our economic growth. In fact, it created the middle class. And it has welcomed the historically disadvantaged, such as new immigrants and members of my own family who left the segregated South to find better lives. Manufacturing remains a hugely significant part of our nation’s GDP, for the simple reason that we will always need skilled people who make things. One could even argue that in a world that’s increasingly ephemeral, sensation-driven and in the cloud, the ability to make physical objects that people need. . .  actual stuff! . . . is more important than ever.

Today, manufacturing continues to be an engine that’s revitalizing our economy and making America stronger. Every dollar in final sales of manufactured products supports nearly $1.50 in output from other sectors – the largest multiplier of any sector. According to the Manufacturing Institute, American manufacturing employs nearly 12 million men and women, and supports almost 5 million more jobs. In addition, average manufacturing industry salaries are almost 20% higher than non-manufacturing jobs and come with better benefits than the average job.

Yet, more than four-fifths of manufacturers report they cannot find all of the skilled workers they need. Part of this skills gap is due to a significant underrepresentation of women in manufacturing. While women make up half of the U.S. workforce, less than a quarter of manufacturing jobs are held by women. As manufacturers, how can we begin to close these skills and gender gaps?

It’s no secret that there’s a shift going on around how we think about diversity in America and the workplace. I’m in the car business. And everyone here knows that 21st century vehicles are extremely complex machines. Though this might be something of an oversimplification, the way I like to think of it, cars have windows and cars have mirrors. The conversation around diversity and inclusion used to be a window: meaning it was about someone on the inside giving permission to someone on the outside to come in. We’re not all the way there yet, but, increasingly, the diversity conversation is becoming more like a mirror. In order to remain competitive—and to better understand customer needs—our manufacturing workforce needs to be a reflection of America.

Combating Manufacturing's Image

The first step toward creating a manufacturing environment that’s free of gender bias and attracts more women to careers in manufacturing is to combat the industry’s image.  It’s a problem. We need to educate young workers that this is not their grandfather’s—or grandmother’s!—assembly line. While the “male-favored culture” that women cited as a key reason for underrepresentation in the industry is outdated, there’s a misperception that needs to be addressed. Survey data from the Manufacturing Institute tells us that women in manufacturing are much less likely to recommend manufacturing careers to their children—particularly daughters—than their male counterparts. 

Meanwhile, over 75% of women surveyed for a report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute agreed that a manufacturing career is, in fact, interesting and rewarding, emphasizing compensation and opportunities for challenging assignments as the top reasons to stay in the industry. We need to redress this dialectic and educate young women about the bold new world of manufacturing.

The Manufacturing Institute is leading the charge in tackling the gender gap in manufacturing. In 2012 the organization’s Women in Manufacturing group launched the STEP Ahead initiative to help attract women toward careers in manufacturing through recognition, research and leadership. The STEP Awards, part of the larger STEP Ahead initiative, were launched to examine and promote the role of women in the manufacturing industry by celebrating women and their achievements at all levels of a manufacturing organization – from the factory floor to the C-suite. The women recently honored at an event in Washington, D.C. on February 6 are the best of the best, and still represent only a fraction of the female talent in the industry.

By telling the real stories of these women, we can inspire the next-generation of talent to pursue careers in the industry, while at the same time encouraging our female colleagues to reach for the C-suite.  We can do that by: championing STEM education with programs that give kids practical hands-on experience and help them appreciate that manufacturing is the silent “m” in STEM; serving as industry ambassadors and illustrating the enormous opportunities that exist in the sector; and paving the way for more women while ensuring the continued success of the work we love.

American women have long-known they have the skills to pay the bills; it’s time—and it’s up to us—to help them gain the skills to man the drills.

Latondra Newton is chief corporate social responsibility officer for Toyota Motor North America, Inc. and chair of the Women in Manufacturing STEP Ahead initiative.

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