Manufacturing Seeking Women, Minority Employees

To inspire diverse individuals to enter the manufacturing workforce, companies and organizations have developed programs aimed specifically at women and minorities.

Record numbers of women are taking up careers in science and engineering. Over the past two decades, the percentage of women in these male-dominated fields has more than doubled, from 12% to 25%, according to the National Science Foundation. Still, this shift is not enough to fill the growing need for engineering and manufacturing professionals. That's why there's a nationwide push to involve more women -- and minorities -- in these vital industries.

One major reason women have avoided manufacturing and engineering careers is their perception of the workplace. For some, the mere word "manufacturing" conjures up images of a gritty plant floor, where workers face grueling shifts, high stress and long hours. With this stereotype, it is no wonder that the manufacturing sector is finding it difficult to attract young people -- women and men -- to careers in science and engineering.

But like most stereotypes, this one is false. Cutting-edge technologies drive today's modern manufacturing processes, and professionals in the sector rank among the highest paid workers in America. In fact, compensation for engineering jobs averages $78,000, higher than most American's income.

To combat the misperceptions and to inspire diverse individuals to enter the manufacturing workforce, companies and allied organizations have developed programs aimed specifically at women and minorities. The National Association of Manufacturers Organizations (NAM) and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation have developed interactive, educational programs to introduce middle-school girls and minority students to science and engineering-related subjects.

See more on women in manufacturing, including additional articles and educational resources.
One such program is the SME Education Foundation's Science, Technology, Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) camps, created in 1997 at the University of Wisconsin at Stout. Since then, STEPS camps have been held annually on campuses across America. The week-long camps are led by experienced faculty and some are assisted by young women already enrolled in collegiate engineering programs. These women serve as role models for the campers and are proof positive that gender is no barrier to success in math and science.

The camps are highly team-oriented, and have low student-to-instructor ratios. Participants get hands-on experience in physics, pneumatics, aerodynamics, Web-site design, chemistry, fabrication, assembly and electronics. The curriculum is project-driven, so participants can develop confidence in their abilities.

Paving the Way

These camps have proven so successful that the SME Education Foundation last year partnered with Project Lead the Way -- an organization that works with schools across the nation to provide educational programming in science, engineering and technology -- to develop a summer day program called STEPS Academy. Academies are open to both boys and girls and often located in diverse communities across the country. In 2007, there were more than 60 STEPS programs in 16 states.

Through such early intervention, industry leaders and educators are working together to create the next generation of American innovators. New statistics show their efforts may already be reaping results. The National Science Board's Sciences and Engineering Indicators, published in 2006, revealed that women working in science and engineering occupations are younger than their male counterparts, on average. The organization concluded, "This alone will have a significant impact upon sex ratios, and also perhaps on the numbers of female scientists in positions of authority, as the large proportion of female doctorate degree holders in their late 30s move into their 40s."

Sandra Bouckley is a SME Education Foundation board member, and Director of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering - FWD, Chrysler LLC.

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