Mary Strubbe
Stephanie Sears, a single mom of three, earned certified production technician certification through the Raise the Floor program and is now working on a manufacturing technology degree.

Closing the Skills Gap with Plant Tours, Pep Talks and Child Care

April 10, 2017
Women fill only 10% of advanced manufacturing jobs. How one Ohio-Kentucky group is trying to change that.  

Julie Mockbee lost her job as a production planner at Johnson Controls at age 51, when the company closed her plant and moved to Mexico. Freshly unemployed after a 20-year tenure there, she immediately started looking for new work in manufacturing, a field that had been good to her all those years.

“I didn’t want a job that I had to take home with me,” says the Kentucky grandmother. “I wanted to go in, get my eight hours in, get paid decent money and go home.”

At the unemployment office, she learned she qualified for retraining, something she didn’t feel confident about doing at first. “I had been out of school way too long, I thought, to be able to do it,” she recalls.

But employment counselors encouraged her to apply for a training program in the Cincinnati metropolitan area, started by 26 women hailing from the education, manufacturing and nonprofit worlds. The founders of the program, called Raise the Floor saw middle-skill manufacturing jobs as a way for women to move out of poverty. According to 2016 data from the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), women hold fewer than 10% percent of jobs in the growing areas of advanced manufacturing and transportation/distribution/logistics.

Carissa Shutzman, one of the co-founders of Raise the Floor and a vice president at Gateway Community College in Northern Kentucky, said the group’s founders came together because of “a perfect storm” of a high number locally of unfilled, skilled jobs in manufacturing and high percentage of under- and unemployed women.

Cincinnati has one of the worst child poverty rates in the country. Two out of every three children in poverty in the city live in a single female-headed household, according to data from the Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

Shutzman says that in her role at Gateway, she’s seen too many women choosing traditionally female areas of study like childcare or cosmetology, which “most often are not going to have a living wage,” and wanted to steer more of them toward better-paying manufacturing careers.

To keep things grounded in shop-floor reality, where men and women work side-by-side, Raise the Floor trainees take the same 12 months of classes as men in advanced manufacturing and mechatronics at Gateway. But in addition, the women receive support services like career counseling, bus passes and gas cards to help with transportation to and from school and work sites, and even help with groceries and grants for books and class fees.

The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which focuses on issues of economic self-sufficiency for women, also provides scholarships for moms to pay for childcare while they’re in the training.  (Women in job training programs complete their training in far higher numbers if they have childcare assistance, while men are most in need of housing assistance, an IWPR survey of 168 such training programs found.)

In addition, the Women’s Fund has financed some employer roundtables to help manufacturers get a better grasp of how they can make their workplace more welcoming to women and fill open positions.

Dispelling Onerous Misperceptions

Outside of class, the women go on Raise the Floor-organized plant tours, to get a sense of what a modern manufacturing facility looks like and make connections with employers that are particularly interested in hiring women.

Laura Lyons, president of a small manufacturing company in Walton, Kentucky called ATech and a member of Raise the Floor’s advisory board, says that women are often surprised to learn from the tours that they don’t have to lift heavy objects; that robots do the lifting. “Those are the things that when women come in and see the environment, they think, ‘I’m going to look at this a potential job,’” she says.

Women who graduate from the program earn Certified Production Technician credentials. Mockbee, who learned on the job at Johnson and moved up through the ranks, was worried she’d have trouble with the math required to graduate, but she applied herself and made it through, with the help of some handholding. “Oh gosh, we had so many pep talks,” remembers Mockbee. “From our advisors, practically all of our teachers. Any way they could help us get through the program, they were willing to do.”

Now she’s an electronic assembler ATech, where the workforce is 42% female. She still makes less than she earned at Johnson, but she has a more flexible schedule at ATech that allows her to drop her grandchildren off at school in the morning, so her daughter, a nurse with a very early shift, can get to work.

“I get the kids up, take them to school and then I come to work and it makes me 15 minutes late each time I do that,” says Mockbee. “And they allow me to make up my 15 minutes and not hold it against me—which most manufacturing would not do.” Lack of even a little flexibility in timing, she says, “is one thing that holds a lot of women back.”

Lyons, whose company makes electronic training devices for the automotive industry, allows her workers to make up up to a half hour each day. “Children have dentist’s appointments,” she says, adding that, “you can’t ignore half the population. “There are not enough veterans, or people who have been displaced, or incumbent workers” to hire.

Lyons says that part of Raise the Floor’s work is educating leaders at local companies that although candidates may still need training in certain specialized areas, they come ready with a valuable skill set of problem-solving, collaboration and communication.

“So many companies are like, ‘Aw, we can’t find women or we can’t find diverse candidates. We invite them but they don’t apply,’” says Meghan Cummings, executive director of the Women’s Fund. “Not only do we invite [women], but we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s sit down, let’s tell you about the menu, let’s show you about the environment.’

“ It’s more than just inviting them. You have to set the table and really look at the culture around everything and make it comfortable for them.”

Seventy-seven women, ranging in age from 18 to 52, have graduated from Raise the Floor since the first class in January 2014. Most come without a manufacturing background, but companies including Bosch and the Armor Group “have sent some of their female employees who are in a less skilled position … so they are better positioned for advancement and wage increases,” says Lyons, who acquired ATech in 2010 after working in R&D and then running operations there.

Thirty-three Raise the Floor graduates are now employed in manufacturing. Most start between $14 and $17 an hour, and their average wage after 180 days is $18 an hour. The pay gets them closer to earning a living wage than most retail, restaurant or lower-level healthcare jobs. ( The MIT Living Wage Calculator puts the living wage at $21.43 an hour for a one adult, one child household in Hamilton County, Ohio, where Cincinnati is located.)

Mockbee gained the confidence to continue her studies after her Raise the Floor stint ended, going on to earn an associate’s degree in advanced manufacturing technology engineering. “I really didn’t need it for the job here, but I feel better having that piece of paper because you never know what’s going to happen,” she says.

When her old job ended, although she had worked in production planning for six years, “because the company was closed down, there wasn’t anybody who could verify I had been in that kind of position.” If she ever needs to go job hunting again, she’ll have easily verifiable credentials to put on a resume.

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