Viewpoint -- Skilled-Worker Shortage: Are Women An Answer?

Nov. 4, 2005
New thinking may bring long-term talent to your company.

I hear lots of talk these days about overhauling U.S. public education, partnering with community colleges to increase technical training and campaigning among high school students to convince them that manufacturing is a great career path. These acts all have the same goal: To combat the skilled-worker shortage that has hit many sectors of U.S. manufacturing hard and undoubtedly will spread to all sectors soon.

In a recent survey by Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), 36% of polled companies have "good jobs going unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants." Former NAM executive Jerry Jasinowski, now heading NAM's research and education arm, said in a speech about this topic: "The problem will only get worse as a seasoned manufacturing workforce soon passes from the scene with no generation of skilled workers in the pipeline . . ." Jasinowski reported that if the current trend continues, experts estimate that the U.S. will face a shortage of roughly 13 million qualified employees by 2020.

In response, NAM has launched the "Dream It. Do It." campaign to spur greater interest in manufacturing among young adults and ensure that they receive adequate training. It's a great idea, and I hope it meets with much success.

I offer another idea to groups and individual manufacturers attempting to address this crisis: Women.

I'm not going to quote any figures here, but we all know that a bias against women still exists in manufacturing. Certainly, I have met many women with successful careers at all levels of manufacturing. But I've also met a female consultant who visited a plant a few years ago and was stunned to find no women's restroom; a woman who was an executive at a major producer who left manufacturing altogether when the CEO suggested she should be taking home economics classes; a supply-chain executive at a mid-tier company who was insulted by a Italian customer who told her in Italy women weren't welcome in positions like hers; and a plant director who was commuting for a bit for a new position until her family could relocate and was constantly asked in casual plane chat, "So where is your husband's new job?" And these are the executives! I wonder what's happening on the plant floor.

It's not that women aren't welcome at manufacturing's door; it's just that nobody realizes how badly they want to come in. They are not thought of as a strategic resource, but they should be in the face of this skilled-worker crisis. Many, many women need and want flexible shift work because it fits into their families' schedules.

How do I know this? Because I know about a bazillion nurses who chose that profession specifically for the flexibility of the schedules. If they want full-time work, they can get full-time work. If they want night shift, they can get night shift. If they want seasonal, they can get seasonal. If they want weekends only, they can get weekends only. Beyond that, it's interesting and challenging work that requires little or no travel and provides self-improvement in the form of continuing education. It pays well and has good benefits.

And, the need for such work is present it just about every community. Sound familiar?

I also know that not all women want to be nurses. I suggest that these women can be trained in the very skills manufacturers need and be given schedule options that would fit their personal needs. It would require education as women have not been encouraged to enter manufacturing in the past, and a rethinking of shift scheduling, but it could be done.

Another benefit to manufacturing is the way most women approach their careers. If they choose to have children or care for other family members, there usually is a point in their lives when they want to work less. That doesn't mean they always want to work less or are not interested in further training and promotions. It means they need long-term flexibility with inherent opportunities for advancement and will be extremely loyal to companies that give them that. In other words, bringing in women who now or in the near future need a reduced schedule because of family care taking is a surefire way to foster loyalty and find future leaders. I know this. I am a working mother and know many others.

The flexible schedules that are a byproduct of catering to these women can also benefit the employer in that it supports altering capacity based on demand and allows for more flexibility in serving customers. And, within this demographic you will find women who want to work all types of shifts at a variety of times.

Certainly, making a concerted effort to attract women will require adjustments but not that many. And I believe the benefits would be abundant. Making a connection between these two groups could be another answer to the skilled-worker shortage and could foster future leadership and lower turnover. What's your first move?

Tonya Vinas is managing editor of IndustryWeek. She is based in Cleveland.

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